Chinese coal consumption dipped by 1.6% in 2014, despite economic growth of 7.3%. The country’s voracious appetite for steel is peaking, damping demand for coking coal. Worries about pollution mean that demand for thermal coal, as used in power stations, is slackening too. Water conservation is another concern for policymakers—on current trends coal could account for a quarter of China’s water use by 2020 and coal reserves are mainly in the most parched regions. Its coal-fired plants are running at only 54% of capacity, a 35-year low. In Beijing two big coal-fired plants closed this week; the capital’s last one will shut down next year.
Another prop to demand has been power generation in rich countries. But in America coal now struggles to compete with natural gas, which has fallen by 80% in price since 2008. Domestic coal use there peaked in 2007. European consumption soared after Germany’s hasty decision to close its nuclear-power plants. But gas and renewables are eating into that.
Coalswarm, an environmental think-tank, says in a new report that two-thirds of coal-fired power plants proposed worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or cancelled…. Overall, Europe and America have already cut coal-fired generation capacity by over a fifth in a decade. The output of American coal mines dropped to 1993 levels in 2013.
Political pressure is growing against the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Coal provides 40% of the world’s electricity. But of 1,617GW of global capacity, 75% is of the dirtiest kind…. The chimneys of all but the most modern coal plants also emit plenty of other nasties. Mercury emissions stunt young brains. Sulphur and nitrous oxides scald lungs. Overall, coal kills around 800,000 people a year, most of them poor. In China it is responsible for up to a sixth of the particulates most dangerous for human health.
In America the coal and electric-utility industries are fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to curb emissions of CO2, mercury and other toxins contained in coal. On March 25th, 2015 the Supreme Court heard arguments by some state governments, backed by the miners and utilities, that the agency has failed duly to consider the cost of its measures against mercury (see article).
Campaigners reckon 80% of the world’s coal reserves must stay in the ground if the planet is to stand a chance of keeping global warming under 2ºC by 2050. A divestment movement akin to the apartheid-era campaign to boycott South Africa is under way in many universities. Stanford may dump its coal investments and Oxford University is under pressure to do likewise. The World Bank no longer invests in coal-fired plants. Last year Norway’s sovereign-wealth fund dumped its holdings in more than 50 coal companies worldwide. South Korea recently introduced a carbon cap-and-trade scheme which punishes coal….
Furthermore, in some emerging markets, India especially, demand for coal is set to continue rising—so overall global demand may not peak until at least the 2030s. This week India’s government predicted a 19% rise in the country’s coal imports in this fiscal year. But thereafter the plan is to bring in private contractors to develop India’s untapped coalfields, and then to phase out all thermal-coal imports. If so, that will be grim news for the Indonesian, Australian and South African mining firms that are supplying India at the moment.
Even though some other developing nations’ coal imports will grow in future, coal companies are having to face up to a crisis now. Some are cutting costs and getting ready for a wave of consolidation. Others are litigating and lobbying against change.
Excerpts from Coal Mining: In the Depths, Economist, Mar. 28, 2015, at 65