The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Medium-Term Coal Market Report 2014 provides further confirmation of the growth and dynamism of international coal markets.

This authoritative report is yet another refutation of the claim that world coal demand is peaking and coal assets are at risk of becoming ‘stranded’.  Rather, it confirms that coal consumption and trade will grow strongly for decades to come.

In 2013, coal added more primary energy globally than any other fuel, closing the gap with oil.  The IEA projects that an additional 1 billion tonnes of coal will be consumed in 2019 compared with today, crossing the 9 billion-tonne threshold.

The shift in the international seaborne coal trade to the Pacific Basin will continue, with Australia and Indonesia accounting for most of the incremental increase in exports.

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven observes that the shift in the world’s economic centre of gravity towards Asia ‘is most obvious for coal’.

The growth of coal demand in China in 2013 (196 million tonnes) was actually larger than growth in the rest of the world (188 million tonnes).  In the same year, China imported 341 million tonnes of coal, the largest amount ever imported in a single year.

Further, the IEA does not expect Chinese coal demand to peak in the next five years, affirming instead that ‘China will be the coal giant for many years in the future’.  While the pace of Chinese coal demand will moderate, China’s projected growth to 2019 – nearly half a billion tonnes – will be larger than current European consumption.

The IEA also states that economic growth in China needs more energy than nuclear, gas, oil and renewables can supply.  Investments in new coal generation capacity and coal gasification plants will support growing coal consumption.

Moreover, the IEA notes that the Chinese Government is pursuing complementary measures to improve air quality, including the establishment of large coal bases linked to big cities through ultra-high voltage lines, and the installation of cleaning equipment in coal power plants.

Over the next five years, India is expected to become the second-largest consumer of coal, surpassing the United States, and the second-largest importer of coal, close to China.  India will also become the world’s largest importer of thermal coal.

Encouragingly for Australia, the ten economies belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) represent the main areas of coal demand growth outside of China and India.

While future coal growth will be concentrated in developing Asia, coal remains critical to developed economies, providing around one-third of electricity generation in both the United States and Europe.

In Japan – Australia’s largest coal export market – coal demand grew 6.4 per cent in 2013.  And the emergence of new coal capacity, primarily in South Korea but also in Japan, will boost coal demand.

The IEA argues that the ongoing growth of world coal demand makes the continued deployment of low-emissions coal technologies critical.  In particular, the IEA calls for the ‘radical acceleration’ of high-efficiency, low emissions (HELE) coal-fired power plants and carbon capture and storage (CCS).  The IEA welcomes Canada’s Boundary Dam project, which is the first large-scale CCS power plant to commence operation.

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