The World’s Fastest Growing Fossil Fuel: Coal Reaches 30 Percent Share Of Global Energy Market

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.”


15 Responses to The World’s Fastest Growing Fossil Fuel: Coal Reaches 30 Percent Share Of Global Energy Market

  1. Mike says:

    So global production is just under 4000 units but global consumption is about 3750 units. Are ~250 units being stored?

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    “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.”

    Is this meant to imply that environmentalists champion the substitution of “natural” gas burning for coal as some sort of solution to climate change? That’s like substituting bath salts for crack. I hope that’s just a poorly constructed paragraph.

    Zombie cannibal apocalypse anyone?

  3. Andy Revkin says:

    Great post, Stephen. And Australia, much closer to Asian markets, is well ahead of US in this area. An in-depth discussion here:

    Can the U.S. and Australia Slake China’s Coal Thirst and Still Claim CO2 Progress?:

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Why do we subsidize the mainland Chinese government so heavily with dirt-cheap coal dug in the U.S.A.?

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    This (non-)news highlights something I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with in recent months: How detached from reality even my fellow hard core greenies can be.

    I’ve had numerous conversations with other people who are heavily engaged with climate change and more generally sustainability, who have no bloody clue what’s going on in the world with coal consumption, specifically what India and China are doing. You can point your finger at the US (and the EU and …) all you want about our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and you will be absolutely correct that we’re not doing nearly enough. No one would argue that point (except a rabid denier). But by the same token we can’t overlook what the other two countries of the Emissions Big Three are doing.

  6. ToddInNorway says:

    Why in h_ll won’t the Chinese use their PV panels themselves, or subsidize selling them to India?

  7. Rob Bradley says:

    World coal usage, and the high share of carbon-based energy in general, makes U.S.-side mitigation a tears-in-the-ocean problem.

  8. GRowatt says:

    2 reasons Todd, they get good money by selling them to us and they don’t work!

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    China and India should use PV (plus other renewables and efficiency) to replace coal, but it isn’t trivial.

    Cheap PV — $1/Watt — is brand new. Learning to use it wisely will take time and innovation.

    (Plus, continue to teach the huge external costs of coal.)

  10. AlaninAZ says:

    I read your post in which you seemed to criticize Australia for trying to expand coal exports to China yet you support the Keystone project. It seems to me that those positions are not consistent.

  11. anders strandberg says:

    1.4Gt CO2 higher…

    would include the number 7.6 and 9.0 which I think are the different numbers, please check if you include them

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Consistency is career hindering.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Australia (it rhymes with failure) the political detritus speak fluent forked tongue. The ‘social democrats’ of the Labor(sic) Party pretend to be concerned about climate destabilisation, but they have introduced a pathetic carbon trading scheme where the subsidies to the big polluters are gargantuan, ensuring no action. The scheme also entails buying utterly spurious ‘carbon offsets’ or ‘indulgences’ from poor countries, based on phony ‘reforestation’ (with palm oil plantations)projects and the like. The carbon trading scheme will, like all such ‘market mechanisms’ (we appear incapable of ever learning from experience)be rorted by the corrupt grifters of the global financial Mafias. And, at the very same time, the PM, Gillard, promises coal-miners, who are rapidly being replaced by mechanisation and remotely controlled robotic equipment, that they and their families will ‘be mining coal for generations’. And she and her regime, particularly Resources Minister Murran Funguson, are determined to open new coalmines everywhere, extract coal seam gas and destroy the Great Barrier reef by building numerous new coal megaports.
    Of course, the further Right ‘Liberal’ Party outdoes all this. Their leader Tony ‘Climate Change is Crap’ Abbott, needing votes, is pulling a Cameron-style swifty by pretending to believe in climate destabilisation science. Upon election that facade will be instantly dropped. His state Government colleagues are the most ferocious anti-environmental destroyers yet seen in this benighted land. The Victorians have sabotaged wind power, preferring brown coal, the dirtiest coal of all. The NSW regime is subverting solar and pushing coal and coal-seam gas, despite widespread grass-roots opposition. And the new Queensland regime under its troppo caudillo Newman, hisses and spits venom at ‘Green extremists’ every day, and has picked a fight over protecting endangered dugongs, turtles and whales in the Great Barrier Reef, whereupon Abbott jumps in expectorating that there exists a ‘green veto’ on ‘development’. Grim times dead ahead.

  14. quokka says:

    Not trivial? Probably not viable. Even at $1/W panel prices, the balance of plant costs are probably at least as much again. New nuclear in China is less than $2/W for the domestically designed CP1000 and somewhere between $2-3/W for AP1000 or EPR with costs for AP1000 and derivatives expected to fall as localization proceeds. In India, the relative costs are similar. These two countries are critically important.

    And nuclear runs when the sun isn’t shining.

    Nuclear (or hydro) can directly displace coal. PV cannot. If you want to be rid of coal, then the surest route is blindingly obvious.

  15. quokka says:

    Good luck with trying to get Australia to mitigate it’s coal exports. UNESCO recently issued a highly critical report on Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef. In particular it criticized rapid coastal development which includes expanded port facilities for the booming coal business.

    The response of the Queensland premier:

    “We’re in the coal business”

    The premier – Campbell Newman – is head of the new state government that came to power in recent elections that reduced the Labor caucus in the state parliament to numbers that could hold meetings in a phone box.

    Sorry to say it, but cutting the supply of coal is likely to prove more difficult than cutting the demand. While there’s a lot of money to be made, it will be dug out of the ground.