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Booming Coal Use Isn’t Just About China – It’s Increasingly About India Too

by Michael Levi
November 10, 2014



Coal has been the world’s fastest growing energy source for a decade. That’s largely been driven by China. Increasingly, though, it’s about India too, which has important climate implications.

The chart below shows annual changes in global oil, gas, and coal consumption. (The figure for a given year is the change from the previous year; all numbers in this post are based on the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.) Between 1988 and 2002 coal led the pack only once. But between 2003 and 2013, coal led in every year but 2008.


This was mostly a China story. The chart below shows annual changes in global oil, gas, and coal consumption but now excludes China. For 2003 through 2012, once you remove China, coal is no longer the world’s strongest growing fuel. (Natural gas largely dominates instead.) But look at 2013: coal is once again the world’s fastest growing source of energy even excluding China.


What explains coal’s return to the top? One guess might be the United States, where coal use bounced back in 2013 after a weak 2012. If you remove the United States from the data, though, coal remains the biggest gainer in 2013. Another guess might be Europe, given the drumbeat of stories about Europe’s return to coal. But this was a 2012 phenomenon; European coal consumption actually declined in 2013. Indeed, just as with the United States, if you remove Europe from the data, coal is still on top.

To really explain what’s happening you need to bring in India. The chart below shows annual changes in global oil, gas, and coal consumption beginning in 2003 but now excludes both China and India. Presto: coal is no longer the fastest growing energy source around. Indeed it’s not even the second fastest.

Annual EnergyExChinaIndia

Why does this matter? One way of simplifying the climate problem has long been climate = coal = China. These were all gross exaggerations, of course, but they contained a useful kernel of truth. The corollary for policy making – and particularly for foreign policy – was that focusing narrowly on China made sense.

This is increasingly not the case. The final chart in this post shows the annual change in Indian coal consumption as a percentage of the annual change in Chinese coal use. The series is noisy but the trend is clear.


The implication is straightforward: Focusing on China is increasingly insufficient when it comes to climate-related foreign policy. India, long easy to neglect, is becoming more important every year.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Andy Revkin

    This trend will be very hard to blunt given how Indian leaders and citizens have long said (justifiably) that they should not be lumped with China at all given very low per capita CO2 annual emissions (1.9 tons, compared to ~6 for China and 17 for the US). And there’s no quick route to substitutions like natural gas there, either.

  • Posted by Jonathan Gilligan

    I don’t get how this chart shows that India is becoming increasingly important relative to China. It says that China’s coal consumption is growing three times as fast as India’s and, if we extrapolate the trend into the future, that China’s coal consumption will grow faster than India’s for the next 35 years or so (the trend line’s slope is approximately 2 percentage points per year, and has more than 70 percentage points to rise before India’s year-to-year change in coal consumption equals China’s).

    Thus, over the next 35 years, if one can predict from your chart, the ratio of India’s coal consumption to China’s will fall, and fall quickly.

    [ML: Either your math is off or we’re comparing different things. China currently consumes about six times as much coal as India does. But Chinese coal consumption is only growing about three times as fast. That means that the ratio of Indian-to-Chinese coal consumption will fall. This fall will accelerate as the ratio of Chinese to Indian coal consumption growth rates declines. Of course, if you’re focused on the absolute consumption difference rather than the ratio of consumption rates, China will pull away from India, at least for a while. That wasn’t what I was writing about.]

  • Posted by Jonathan Gilligan

    Now that you explain it I see that my math was off for the reason you give. I appreciate your explanation and correction.

  • Posted by Jonathan Gilligan

    Now that you explain it I see that my math was off for the reason you give. I appreciate your explanation and correction of my error.

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