Coal consumption was on the rise even before the war in Ukraine

This article is the fifth in a series on the BP World Energy Statistical Review 2022. The review provides a comprehensive picture of supply and demand for major energy sources at the national level. Previous articles covered overall energy consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, oil supply and demand, and global natural gas trends. Today, I delve into coal production and consumption data.

Coal emissions comparison

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. What do we mean by that?

Fossil fuels are mainly composed of carbon and hydrogen. They are hydrocarbons. When hydrocarbons are burned, carbon forms carbon dioxide and hydrogen forms water vapour. Coal contains a higher percentage of carbon than petroleum or natural gas. So when coal is burned, it generates more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil or natural gas will generate.

According to Energy Information Administration (EIA), burning coal emits approximately 210 pounds of CO2 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs) of energy. By comparison, petroleum emits about 160 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs and natural gas emits 117 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs.

Coal also produces many other harmful emissions when burned in power plants. Historically, coal-fired power plants emitted a lot of sulfur dioxide, which is responsible for acid rain. Regulations eventually limited this problem, but coal-fired power plants still emit pollutants like mercury. They even emit more radioactive elements into the environment than a nuclear power plant. Thus, many regulations have been adopted in an attempt to reduce the impact of coal on the environment.

Due to the various pollution problems associated with coal, most developed countries have moved away from coal power. But because coal is cheap, developing countries continue to rely heavily on coal as an energy source. Coal consumption in developing countries is currently the main global driver of rising carbon dioxide emissions.

Consumption and production statistics 2021

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has seen a record 4.2% drop in global coal consumption. In the 38 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), coal consumption fell in 2020 by 15.2%.

However, as with oil and natural gas, coal consumption rebounded strongly in 2021, growing by 6.3%. Coal consumption in non-OECD countries hit a new high, while global coal consumption fell just below the previous record set in 2014. Non-OECD countries now consume 81, 5% of the world’s coal.

Six of the world’s ten largest coal consumers are in the Asia-Pacific region. All but one of the top 10 coal consumers last year saw their coal consumption increase compared to 2020. Below are the world’s top 10 coal consumers in 2021. “Change” refers to up or down from the previous year.

Related: China’s construction crisis weighs on industrial metals

Germany, which has been phasing out nuclear power and aggressively pursuing renewables, saw the largest percentage increase in coal consumption year-on-year (among the top 10 consumers).

Coal producers are geographically more diverse than coal consumers. Nevertheless, China dominates global coal consumption and production. Below are the top 10 coal producers in the world in 2021:

The coal industry in the United States has seen supply and demand decline steadily for 15 years. The dramatic decline in coal consumption in the United States is the main reason why US CO2 emissions have fallen sharply over the past decade. Coal consumption in power plants has been replaced by cheaper natural gas and renewables, both of which have a much smaller carbon footprint. However, this downward trend reversed in 2021, which saw an increase in coal production and consumption in the United States.

In the next episode, I’ll take a closer look at global renewable energy trends.

By Robert Rapier

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