Global coal consumption rose 3 percent from 2012 to 2013, reaching over 3,800 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2013. While the pace of growth is down from 7.1 percent in 2010, the continued increase in coal consumption and related carbon emissions is a cause for substantial concern among climate scientists.
If this trend continues, attempts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius will likely fail, writes Christoph von Friedeburg, a research fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online article (www.worldwatch.org).
Looking at recent developments by region, energy-hungry emerging economies, such as China and India, have been driving the expansion in coal use since the beginning of this century. In contrast, coal consumption in the United States and the European Union (EU) is declining. These countries have been replacing part of their coal consumption with natural gas and renewable energy, although China is taking steps in the same direction.
Coal demand in China has almost tripled since 2000, rising from 683.5 mtoe to 1,933.1 mtoe in 2013—more than half of the global figure. To meet coal demand, the nation so far has been relying on its domestic production. But analysts doubt that this is sustainable for another decade or longer. As imported coal has become competitive, China’s imports have outweighed its exports since 2009.
To diversify its energy sources, the Chinese government increased its capacity, investments, and exports in renewable energy technology, making the nation a new world leader in renewable energy. Furthermore, China is looking into increased imports and domestic extraction of natural gas, all while reducing the nation´s energy intensity.
In the United States, coal consumption has been in retreat since the start of the domestic shale gas boom. These trends could change in coming years if, as some analysts predict, many of the wells for hydraulic fracturing run dry and natural gas prices rise again, or if substantial exports of liquefied natural gas begin.
Coal consumption in the EU has been on a marked downward trend since 1990.This trend is mostly attributable tothe EU´s flat overall energy consumption since 1990 and to coal’s falling share in EU primary energy consumption. Policies and financial incentives that raised the share provided by renewables contribute to this shift.
The coal supply is getting “dirtier” as strong demand and lower prices create markets for coal with lower energy content. In 2012, for instance, the average heat content of coal produced in the United States was about 23.4 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg), down from 29.17 MJ/kg in 2005. This means that more and more coal needs to be burned to generate the same amount of heat for a desired electricity output.
If coal consumption continues to increase and no meaningful binding multilateral agreements on climate change are made, attempts to combat global climate change will likely fail. One source of hope is that the combination of decreasing energy intensity and declining costs of renewables will cause coal´s share to keep shrinking and stop the global rise in the use of the dirtiest energy source.