Chinese coal consumption surged for a 12th consecutive year in 2011, with the country burning 2.3 billion tons of the carbon-emitting mineral to run power plants, industrial boilers and other equipment to support its economic and population growth.
In a simple but striking chart published on its website, the U.S. Energy Information Administration plotted China's progress as the world's dominant coal-consuming country, shooting past rival economies like the United States, India and Russia as well as regional powers such as Japan and South Korea.
In fact, according to EIA, the 325-million-ton increase in Chinese coal consumption in 2011 accounted for 87 percent of the entire world's growth for the year, which was estimated at 374 million tons. Since 2000, China has accounted for 82 percent of the world's coal demand growth, with a 2.3-billion-ton surge, the agency said.
"China now accounts for 47 percent of global coal consumption -- almost as much as the rest of the world combined," EIA said of the latest figures.
The rising consumption numbers reflect a 200-plus percent increase in Chinese electricity generation since 2000, with most of the new power coming from coal-fired power plants. Chinese growth averaged 9 percent per year from 2000 to 2010, more than twice the 4 percent global growth rate for coal consumption. And when China is excluded from the tally, growth in coal use averaged only 1 percent for the rest of the world over the 2000-2010 period, according to EIA.
U.S. coal exports contribute
Although Chinese coal is largely sourced from domestic mines, EIA figures show that U.S. coal shipments to China have dramatically risen in recent years, punctuated by a 107 percent jump from 2011 to 2012. Chinese imports of U.S. coal surged from 4 million tons in 2011 to 8.3 million tons last year, according to the agency. Only Argentina and Austria saw larger percentage increases in U.S. coal shipments, but on much smaller volumes.
The National Mining Association this week projected that overall U.S. coal exports should total roughly 111 million tons in 2013, down 10 percent from last year. But demand should remain strong in China, India and other fast-growing countries for thermal coal used in power generation and metallurgical coal for steelmaking, NMA said.
"It's really a global story, global in the sense that as we look across the world we see that developing economies are accounting for three-quarters of the economic growth," Hal Quinn, NMA's executive director, explained to a Monday meeting of industry observers and energy reporters in Washington, D.C.
In addition to coal, Quinn said U.S. iron ore production should benefit from new and ongoing construction projects and the stimulus of spending in China, the world's largest buyer of iron ore and the purchaser of 40 percent of the world's base metals.
The growth of U.S. coal exports to China and other Asian-Pacific countries will also depend in part on the planned construction of new and expanded Pacific Ocean coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest from Oregon and Washington to British Columbia (ClimateWire, Jan. 17).
Such efforts, considered vital to expanding the United States' global market share for coal, have been slowed by political and environmental opposition, including groups that argue China's voracious burning of coal will exacerbate climate change.
Growing world use 'not good news'
According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, China's share in global coal consumption is more than twice that of the demand for oil in the United States. And last year China reigned as both the world's No. 1 coal producer (3.7 billion metric tons) and the world's top buyer of foreign coal, with an estimated 270 million tons of imports, according to the China Coal Transportation and Distribution Association.
In its latest projections on global coal demand, issued last month, IEA said that by 2017 coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world's leading energy source, with every region of the world except the United States relying more heavily on the carbon-intensive energy resource.
In fact, the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tons of coal per year in 2017 than it does today -- an amount equal to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined, IEA noted.
In a December commentary for the Huffington Post, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven described the world's quickening pace of coal consumption as a "troubling paradox" given international efforts to address global climate change, which many scientists link to the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of coal.
"To the degree that affordable coal has allowed hundreds of millions of people in emerging economies to enjoy the conveniences that the industrialized world began taking for granted long ago, its proliferation is a blessing," she wrote. "Yet for a society increasingly concerned about the amount of carbon it is sending into the atmosphere, the surge in coal burning is not good news."