Coal consumption in the U.S. has declined substantially, falling almost 20 percent in the first quarter of this year due to cheap natural gas prices. Environmentalists and climate hawks are championing the transition away from burning coal, hoping it will put the U.S. on a path toward meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
But if we look at the global market, the picture for coal looks entirely different.
According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, coal consumption grew 5.4 percent in 2011 and coal production grew by 6.1 percent, giving the resource a 30 percent share of the global energy market. The steep decline in U.S. consumption was offset by a massive increase in the Asia Pacific region, which accounted for all the net growth in 2011.
That growth in coal consumption was the primary driver of the record levels of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2011, causing a leading energy economist to worry that “the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close.”
And those emissions could be even higher than previously thought. According to peer-reviewed study released this week, there are major discrepancies between China’s national and provincial emissions data. The authors conclude that China’s actual 2010 CO2 emissions could be 1.4 Gt — or the equivalent of Japan, the world’s fourth-largest emitter.
These global dynamics are forcing environmental groups and climate hawks in the U.S. to turn attention to Asian coal exports. While American coal makes up a small chunk of Asian consumption, companies are looking to build new export terminals on the West Coast to increase U.S. shipments to the region.
Speaking about the potential for U.S. coal exports at the Netroots conference last week, lawyer and blogger RL Miller, summed up the situation: “All of this activity in America will come to naught if the coal companies find new markets.”