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The future of energy? Coal

Posting in Energy

The Spirit of Energy Yet to Come looks a lot like energy past and present, as in this coal-fired plant in China.

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Grim news for environmentalists: Coal is on pace to match oil as the world's leading energy source within 10 years.

A report by the International Energy Agency notes that abundant supplies from places like Indonesia, India and Australia, combined with "insatiable demand" from China and emerging markets will drive coal's surge unless international energy practices shift.

"Coal's share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade," IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said in a press release, noting that the trend  would assure continued growth in CO2 emissions and their climate change implications.

Van der Hoeven was announcing IEA's annual Medium Term Coal Market Report, which forecasts that coal will nearly catch oil by 2017, when global coal consumption will hit 4.32 billion tons of oil equivalent (btoe), compared to 4.4 billion tons for oil. Demand for coal will increase everywhere other than in the U.S., where natural gas is high on the rise, the report notes.

Match Game. Coal is on pace to match oil in the world energy mix by 2022, warns IEA boss Maria van der Hoeven.

"The world will burn around 1.2 billion tons of coal per year by 2017 compared to today - the equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined,"  Van der Hoeven said.

That, in turn, "means CO2 emissions will keep growing substantially," she added, noting that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies "are not taking off as once expected."

Other key observations from the report:

  • China became the world's largest coal importer in 2011, surpassing longtime leader Japan
  • Indonesia overtook Australia as the world's leading coal exporter, although Australia should leapfrog back to the top as its coal industry recovers from floods
  • India will become the world's second largest coal consumer by 2017, surpassing the U.S.
  • As U.S. coal demand declines, the U.S. is exporting more coal to Europe, where unlike in the U.S., gas prices are high
  • The overall growth rate in coal is slowing down from its "breakneck pace of the last decade"

Paris-based IEA consists of 28 member countries from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It emerged from the 1973/74 oil crisis, and promotes reliable, clean energy. Last month it warned that the world's continued use of CO2-intense fossil fuels has put the planet on a catastrophic warming path.

Van der Hoeven issued a similar doomsday caution at an international energy ministers' summit last April in London.

Photos: Coal plant from ishmatt via Flickr. Maria van der Hoeven from IEA via Flickr.

More fossil fever on SmartPlanet:

— By on December 18, 2012, 8:52 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure