IEA Cuts Coal Demand Outlook as China `Golden Age' Seen Over

  • Coal use to grow 0.8 percent annually over next 5 years
  • Prices seen staying under pressure by climate policies, shale

The International Energy Agency cut its five-year coal demand forecast for a third year as it said the “golden age of coal in China” seemed over amid a slowdown in the world’s second-biggest economy.

Coal use will rise by 0.8 percent a year through 2020 to 5.8 billion metric tons of coal equivalent, less than the 2.1 percent predicted last year for the following five years, the Paris-based agency said Friday in its Medium-Term Coal Market Report. Half of the increase will come from India and a quarter from Southeast Asia, offsetting declining consumption in the U.S. and Europe, the group said.

The fuel’s role in total electricity generation is poised to fall for the first time in two decades to 37 percent in 2020 from 41 percent now, the IEA said. Last week’s global climate deal in Paris will likely spur increased use of renewables, while an abundance of shale gas means the fuel’s decline is inevitable in the U.S., it said.

“The coal industry is facing huge challenges in terms of profits,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in Singapore on Friday. “We see lots of layoffs across the world, ranging from China to the U.S.”

India Isn’t The New China

Chinese demand last year fell by 2.9 percent to 3.9 billion tons in its first annual drop since 1999, according to the report. Even though India overtook the U.S. as the second largest user last year and will become the largest importer of thermal coal, the nation is unlikely to replace China as its energy-intensive industry is smaller.

Global consumption last year fell for the first time this century. Total demand slid by 0.9 percent to 7.99 billion tons amid a 1 percent drop in steam-coal consumption. The use of metallurgical coal, needed to produce iron and steel, rose 1.3 percent, according to the IEA.

“In the next four to five years, we expect prices to remain under pressure” and trade below $50 a metric ton, Birol said.

Newcastle coal, the main pricing benchmark in Asia, has slumped to about $52 a ton, heading for a fifth year of declines, according to data from Globalcoal. Its European counterpart for delivery to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp has fallen to about $44 a ton, the lowest level since at least 2007 when Bloomberg started to collect broker data.

“China has definitively entered a new era in which its economic growth is slowing down, the energy-intensity of that growth is declining,” Birol said in the report. “The economic transformation in China and environmental policies worldwide – including the recent climate agreement in Paris – will likely continue to constrain global coal demand.”

Envoys from nearly 200 countries took to their boldest step to fight climate change by agreeing on a pact to limit fossil-fuel pollution in all countries. The Paris deal is a “strong signal” to investors financing inefficient and high-carbon coal-fired power plants that “they may have some challenges,” Birol said in Singapore.

Australia To Reclaim Export Throne

Coal supply, meanwhile, fell last year for the first time since 1999, driven by declines in China and Indonesia, according to the report. The U.S., by contrast, increased its coal output, along with India and Australia, the report showed.

Australia is expected to recover the “throne” and become the largest total coal exporter, as competitor Indonesia is hurt by slumping prices and falling Chinese imports, the IEA said. When it comes to only coal used in power stations, Indonesia, however, will easily remain the world’s biggest exporter, according to the report.

Exports of thermal coal from Australia will grow by 4.5 percent a year on average over the outlook period, helped by growing demand in India, while Australian producers will benefit from the cost cuts they’ve made in recent years, the IEA forecasts.

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