Global Coal Use to Stall as India Props Up Growth, IEA Says

Updated on
  • Consumption seen falling in developed nations through 2021
  • Demand in top user China seen little changed in period

Coal demand will “stall and plateau” over the next five years as declines in Europe and North America are offset by growing consumption in India and southeast Asia, according to the International Energy Agency.

The fuel’s share of total electricity generation will fall to 36 percent in 2021 from more than 41 percent in 2013, the Paris-based agency said Monday in its Medium-Term Coal Market Report. China, the world’s biggest producer and consumer of the fuel, presents the greatest uncertainty because its policies can sway the market either way, according to the document.

Global coal consumption declined for the first time this century in 2015, falling 2.7 percent, while global production decreased for the second year in a row, the IEA said. As cleaner technology and stricter climate policies continue to reduce demand in Europe and the U.S., the fuel’s use will shift east, primarily to countries such as India, Vietnam and Indonesia.

“The move of coal to Asia is accelerating and will continue in the coming years with the bulk of coal plant retirements occurring in Europe and the U.S., and construction of new coal power plants happening mostly in Asia,” the IEA said.

The dynamics in the coal market will continue to be determined by China, which will remain the largest consumer by far, representing about half of total demand. The country demonstrated its global market leverage this year when its government’s decision to curb domestic output triggered a remarkable recovery in coal prices.

Chinese coal demand will decrease through 2018, followed by a slight recovery. Still, the country’s demand in 2021 will remain below 2013 levels.

Europe will continue its flight from the fuel, according to the report. With the notable exception of Poland, the drop in coal demand will be even steeper than that in production, IEA says.

While U.S. climate policies have been thrown into uncertainty by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, the IEA still expects the country to reduce demand by almost 100 million tons to 458 million tons through 2021, on top of a 300 million ton decline between 2007 and 2015. The abundance of inexpensive shale gas that has flooded the U.S. market in the past decade led to the retirement of many coal-fired plants, resulting in the greatest-ever decline in coal demand last year.

That trend may continue in a Trump presidency despite the president-elect’s pledges to revive the coal industry and repeal environmental regulations passed under President Barack Obama, as gas and wind have become the cheapest ways to generate electricity in many parts of the country.

There will be strong growth in demand in Asian countries such as India, Vietnam and Indonesia, where “coal-based electricity is one of the preferred options to increase power generation,” according to the IEA. Smaller importers including Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia will also drive demand, spurring seaborne trade growth through 2021. Indian demand will rise 5 percent a year through 2021, while that in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will jump 7.2 percent a year.

“Coal continues to be the backbone of global electricity generation and still makes up 40 percent of global electricity,” said Benjamin Sporton, chief executive officer of the World Coal Association, an industry lobby group. “As demand patterns shift further into developing and emerging Asian economies, we will continue to see strength well into the future.”

Global coal supply fell mainly because of production cuts in China, the U.S. and Indonesia, the report showed. India and Australia increased production by 5.1 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, last year.

(Updates with comment from World Coal Association in penultimate paragraph.)
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