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China’s Coal Consumption 14% Higher Than Previously Thought

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The Wall Street Journal

Everyone knew China needed a lot of coal as its economy hummed along in recent years. Now the world is finding out just how much.

graph of Chinese energy production and consumption, as explained in the article text

newly released analysis of Chinese government data by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found over the past decade-plus, China consumed as much as 14% more coal on an energy-content basis than previously reported. Its domestic coal production meanwhile was as much as 7% higher between 2000 and 2013.

The U.S. government’s global energy-data keeper based the new analysis on preliminary data from China’s government that showed a large upward revision in annual total energy consumption in China, measured in tons of standard coal equivalent, a common industry and government metric.

In practical terms, the new analysis means that during a period of speedy growth, China consumed as much as hundreds of millions more metric tons of coal than previously understood.

The EIA’s analysis also supports those who say China’s coal consumption has peaked, at least for the time being. It estimates China’s coal consumption dropped 2% last year. Rampant air-pollution levels that are a source of public discontent in China helped force the Chinese government to slightly shift its energy mix away from coal in recent years. Alternative sources of energy production—from solar to natural gas—are growing in use, but coal’s huge consumption base means any significant changes will be gradual and could take decades.

The upward revisions are also a reminder of just how unreliable Chinese government data can be – a fact that makes project planning a vastly difficult task for commodity producers and other businesses that sell to China. Concern over China’s economy has played a big part in driving a bust in commodity prices, which contributed to impairment losses industrywide.

Questions over China’s coal demand are nothing new. Among other issues related to China’s statistics, the EIA says, are national totals that frequently don’t match the sum of provincial totals. Accurate data-keeping is one topic routinely discussed between Chinese and U.S. officials.

The upward revision also illustrates just how difficult it is to get an accurate historic account of China’s emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s a topic of rising international interest ahead of Paris climate talks later this year.

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