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By Stephen Lee
Sept. 8 — Global coal production and consumption—driven mainly by China—rose sharply during the past decade, more than offsetting significant cuts in the U.S.
The trend underscores the significance of the Sept. 3 agreement between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping that both countries will abide by the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Between 2005 and 2015, coal consumption in the U.S. fell by 178.2 million tons of oil equivalent (the equivalent amount of oil that would produce the same quantity of energy)—a 31 percent drop, according to the 2016 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
But those cuts were more than offset by China’s increased consumption of 602.2 million tons of coal during the same period—a 45.7 percent hike.
Many climate change skeptics, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), have questioned whether China will really decrease its coal consumption, and whether U.S. coal production and consumption cuts will make a difference globally, considering spiking coal use overseas.
China now accounts for more than half of global coal consumption. Propelled largely by Chinese growth, the top 20 coal-using nations burned 23 percent more coal in 2015 than they did in 2005.
India’s consumption grew by 195.9 million tons, or 92.7 percent, during the 2005–2015 period. Indonesia’s use rose by 55.9 million tons, a 229.1 percent increase.
The same pattern emerged on the production side.
U.S. coal production fell by 125 million tons during the past 10 years, a 21.5 percent drop. Domestic production now stands at 455.2 million tons annually.
But during that same period, China boosted its production by 585.3 million tons (47.1 percent), for a total of 1.83 billion. Indonesia’s production rose by 147.2 million (156.8 percent).
Those two nations, along with growing economies like India and Russia, sparked a 26.6 percent hike among the world’s 17 biggest coal producers.
Despite the statistics, climate advocates said they are reassured by research suggesting that both China’s coal production and use have peaked and are starting to trend downward.
“They’re already making a significant change off of a big growth curve,” David Doniger, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, told Bloomberg BNA. “If you’re on a roller coaster and you go up and up, there comes a period when you’re at the top before you go down. That’s where they are. They have a heck of a lot of work to do to transition to cleaner energy, but it seems to be a deliberate policy objective of theirs.”
Indeed, the data show that Chinese consumption essentially has held flat since 2012 and production has fallen very slightly since 2011.
“For a very long time, the build-out of the coal infrastructure in China was staggering,” John Coequyt, global climate policy director at the Sierra Club, told Bloomberg BNA. “What’s happened over the last few years is that’s plateaued for a host of reasons, starting with climate change, but probably more acutely because of their pollution problems that are really challenging the economic growth of China.”
Doniger also said he was optimistic about the way Chinese political leaders are assessing the realities of climate change.
“They don’t have an entire party that is denying the problem,” he said. “They hear from their scientists that they have terrific problems with sea-level rises and storms threatening their southeastern urban coastline, for example, and that they need action worldwide in order to prevent lots of bad things happening to China. So Chinese leadership seems to be working on this.”
Still, China has a long way to go before its coal trend lines resemble those of the U.S., according to Coequyt.
“We in the U.S. have about one-third of our coal plants either retired or scheduled for retirement,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of coal left in the U.S., and a lot more left in China. There are still countries looking to build more coal plants. We are a long ways away from the point at which global coal use is no longer the top climate change problem.”
Meanwhile, Indian coal consumption remains a vexing problem for climate activists, according to Doniger. From 2005 to 2015, India nearly doubled its coal use, soaring from 211.3 million tons to 407.2.
“The Indian economy is growing fast and is behind the Chinese,” Doniger said. “There’s some maturation in China that hasn’t occurred yet in India. They’re still on the upswing in their energy consumption. We are doing a lot with them there, they’re doing a lot on their own, to rapidly increase renewables. But we’re not seeing the peak yet.”
Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones contributed to this story
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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