The world is in the midst of a global “renaissance of coal” that’s not confined to just a few countries like China or India. Rather, coal is becoming the energy source of choice for a vast array of poorer and fast-growing countries around the world.
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If you only focused on the United States, you might think coal’s days are numbered.
The dirtiest of all fossil fuels once provided more than half of America’s electricity. That has since dropped to 39 percent, thanks to competition from cheap natural gas, a dogged campaign by the Sierra Club to shutter old coal plants, and strict new air pollution regulations. Add in the Obama administration’s upcoming crackdown on CO2 emissions from power plants, and US coal will keep declining in the future.
But that’s not true globally. Far from it. According to data from BP’s Statistical Review of Energy, coal consumption has actually been accelerating worldwide since the end of the 1990s:
It’s tempting to think that this worldwide coal boom is mainly a one-time blip due to China, where coal use has surged since 2000 but has since leveled off as the country transitions away from heavy industry. But as it turns out, that’s not true either.
The coal renaissance isn’t just about China — it’s global
According to an important new study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we’re in the midst of a global “renaissance of coal” that’s not confined to just a few countries like China or India. Rather, coal is becoming the energy source of choice for a vast array of poorer and fast-growing countries around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. “This renaissance of coal,” the authors write, “has even accelerated in the last decade.”
Why is coal becoming so popular? The authors of the PNAS study — Jan Christoph Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob — argue that coal is often the cheapest energy option for many people, relative to other sources like oil, gas, nuclear, or renewables.
What’s especially notable is that countries no longer need their own domestic mines to take advantage of coal power. International coal markets have become so robust, with exports surging in mining countries like Australia and Indonesia, that it’s become much easier for a wide variety of countries to build coal-fired power plants. (Notably, the authors say, the price of coal itself, rather than the capital costs of building power plants, seems to be the important economic driver here.)