China is burning almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Becoming the world’s second largest economy has meant astronomical energy consumption, mostly of coal, which is still the country’s cheapest available resource. According to new research from the US Energy Information Administration, China’s coal usage increased 325 million tons (295 million tonnes) in 2011 to 3.8 billion tons, continuing a long-running trend.
That means that China is not only jeopardizing the health of its 1.3 billion citizens with the smog blanketing its cities, but also making the world’s total consumption of coal grow by roughly 4% a year. Coal is considerably dirtier than other fuels in terms of the carbon dioxide it produces, and accounts for about 20% of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. The World Coal Institute in a 2009 report said global coal usage (pdf, p. 13) would reach 7 billion tonnes (7.7 billion tons) by 2030. In 2010, consumption had already beaten that, driven in large part by China, according to EIA data. Indeed, China accounted for 82% of growth in world coal demand between 2000 and 2011, the EIA notes.
Even scarier, however, is the idea that other countries could follow in China’s coal-tinged foot steps as their economies grow. An International Energy Agency report (pdf) last December notes that by 2017, India could be importing as much coal as China and will surpass the United States as the world’s second largest coal consumer. India, with a population of over 1 billion, was home to a little under half of 1,200 new coal-fired plants being built in 2012, and has its own coal reserves (the world’s fifth largest), though it still imports a lot. Its coal demand is expected to jump to 980 million tonnes by 2017.