Last week, a number of blogs and other news sites commented on an EIA graphic showing that China's coal consumption in 2011 was approaching the total consumption of the rest of the world. I downloaded the data from the EIA and put together my own slightly different graphic, shown below (use "view image" or its equivalent to see it full size). In the spirit of Jeffrey Brown's work on net oil exports, I lumped China and India together. Jeffrey puts them together because they have large populations, economies that are developing rapidly, and both have outgrown -- at least for the time being -- their domestic petroleum supplies. The same arguments seem to me to apply to coal; while both have large coal reserves, and their use of coal is growing rapidly, they appear to have outgrown their ability to mine and move domestic coal to the places where they can burn it usefully.
The red line traces the combined coal consumption of China plus India;
the green line shows consumption for the United States; the blue line
shows consumption for the rest of the world. China and India have moved
from a bit under 2.0 billion short tons per year in 2000 to a bit over
4.5 billion short tons per year in 2011, an annual growth rate over 7.5%. The rest of the world has
increased its coal consumption slightly, and the US has decreased its
consumption by a little. When 2012 numbers are available, the level of US consumption will likely be noticeably lower: due to a glut of low-cost natural gas, US electricity generators have cut back on their use of coal. The rest of the world's consumption may increase; for example, Germany's decision to shut down the nuclear fleet has resulted in an increase in the use of other sources, including coal.
The bottom line here seems clear -- "fixing" the coal portion of global carbon dioxide releases from fossil fuels is largely out of the developed countries' hands. China and India are growing their economies furiously, trying to lift billions of people out of poverty. For the last sixty or more years, no one has known how to grow an economy without growing electricity consumption, and China and India are not exceptions. For base load generation in a relatively poor country, coal has no rivals today in terms of availability, transportability, and relatively inexpensive investments in relatively simple technology. Absent an alternative, China and India will no doubt continue to grow their coal use as possible rather than face the domestic consequences of reduced electricity supplies.
Certainly the developed countries have nothing that they can offer to China and India as an alternative. No clean-coal systems that could capture and sequester the emissions from burning coal. No proven modular nuclear systems that might be suitable for use where
the grid is inadequate for moving power over long distances. No viable storage system that could deal with the intermittency (on the various time scales) that limit renewables. And no form of high-growth economy that doesn't require large energy resources.