Skip to content

The Incredible Global Transition Back To Coal

Coal’s share of global primary energy consumption is soaring.

There are many unfortunate outcomes to Peak Oil. One of the more serious is the world’s transition back to coal. Expensive BTU from crude oil has influenced the energy adoption pathway of the Developing World for ten years now, pushing the five billion people in the Non-OECD towards coal. My work has documented this shift for some time. But, I have paid less attention here at to the effect this paradigmatic change will have on our climate.

In this week’s release of the EIA’s International Energy Outlook, I found the following graph, projecting carbon emissions out to 2035. The EIA is correct to note the surge in emissions from coal. – see: World Energy Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Fuel 1990-2035 in billion MT.


While I generally applaud the EIA for recognizing, in the past few years, the tipping of world energy consumption back to coal I find incongruity in the agency’s other coal forecast: coal’s future contribution to primary world energy consumption. Improbably, EIA holds coal’s contribution steady at the current level of 29% for the next ten, and also the next twenty-five years. | see: Coal Share of World Energy Consumption (by Sector and Total) in Percent.


The flaw in this forecast? It ignores the tremendous growth in market share that coal has already achieved in the past decade. From 1998 to 2008, coal’s share of global primary energy consumption soared from over 25% to over 29%. Yes, at the world scale, that is a huge change. That the EIA would hold coal’s contribution level is a very poor forecast, given that global oil production has been held below a ceiling for six years now—and—that the Developing World has raced forward in its coal adoption.

Coal’s terrible forecast—and I will repeat myself here—is made possible by the fact it’s a cheap and versatile BTU for the billions of people emerging from very low income levels in the developing world. Worse, one has to wonder what the EIA’s emissions forecast would show, were the agency to meaningfully raise coal’s contribution to a more probable target. I see coal’s share rising steadily over the next decade to at least 35% of global energy use, before any pushback comes either from clean energy sources or from constraints on coal supply.

Business Insider, 20 September 2011