2011-12-21

China's Massive Coal Habit, Mapped

China’s coal use grew 400% between 1982 and 2002, and has continued to rise. If we’re going to do something about climate change, this graphic shows, China is going to need to find a new source of fuel.

The U.S. could switch to to 100% renewable energy tomorrow, but it wouldn’t make a huge difference in the grand scheme of coal consumption. An animated map from the U.S. Energy Information Administration reveals just how fast Asia’s coal consumption is growing--and specifically, how China’s growing coal use threatens to double CO2 pollution levels compared to the U.S. over the next 15 years.

In 1982, Asia’s coal consumption was on par with the U.S. Fast-forward 20 years, though, and demand has grown over 400%.

This growth in Asia’s coal use isn’t spread equally among all the countries. North Korea, South Korea, and Southeast Asia consume very little; even India doesn’t consume nearly as much as China. This shouldn’t be surprising. China’s economy is growing so fast that it has no choice but to suck up more energy resources. And while the country is a leader in renewable energy installations, it’s also a rapidly growing coal consumer.

This isn’t just a problem for climate change (though it certainly has a hand in speeding it up). It’s also an issue for everyone else who relies on coal. Stephen Leeb explains the issue in his book Red Alert: "China is currently burning nearly half of the world’s annual coal production. At its current rate of growth, the country’s demand will soon soak up every available ton on the export market. Put another way, between the end of 2009 and 2015, China will likely need additional coal supplies equivalent to between three to four Australias--not just the equivalent of what Australia exports, but its entire coal output."

China’s insatiable coal appetite could jack up the price of coal so much that many seemingly pricey renewables look more attractive. But if that happens, it only means that China is using an even more outsized amount of coal.

So if there’s any hope of staving off severe climate change, China has to be at the center of the process. Otherwise, we’re (mostly) wasting our time.

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