By Fiona Harvey / The Guardian
Coal is likely to rival oil as the world’s biggest source of energy in the next five years, with potentially disastrous consequences for the climate, according to the world’s leading authority on energy economics.
One of the biggest factors behind the rise in coal use has been the massive increase in the use of shale gas in the US.
Coal consumption is increasing all over the world – even in countries and regions with carbon-cutting targets – except the US, where shale gas has displaced coal, shows new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The decline of the fuel in the US has helped to cut prices for coal globally, which has made it more attractive, even in Europe where coal use was supposed to be discouraged by the emissions trading scheme.
Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the IEA, said: “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.”
Coal is abundant and found in most regions of the world, unlike conventional oil and gas, and can be cheaply extracted. As a result, coal was used to meet nearly half of the rise in demand for energy globally in the past decade. According to the IEA, demand from China and India will drive world coal use in the coming five years, with India on course to overtake the US as the world’s second biggest consumer. China is the biggest coal importer, and Indonesia the biggest exporter, having temporarily overtaken Australia.
According to the IEA’s Medium Term Coal Market Report, published on Tuesday morning, the world will burn 1.2bn more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared with today – the equivalent of the current coal consumption of Russia and the US combined. Global coal consumption is forecast to reach 4.3bn tonnes of oil equivalent by 2017, while oil consumption is forecast to reach 4.4bn tonnes by the same date.
With the highest carbon emissions of any major fossil fuel, coal is a huge contributor to climate change, particularly when burned in old-fashioned, inefficient power stations. When these are not equipped with special “scrubbing” equipment to remove chemicals, coal can also produce sulphur emissions – the leading cause of acid rain – and other pollutants such as mercury and soot particles.