Last Year Saw Coal Exports, Power Generation Reach Record Levels

London-based environmental think tank Ember has revealed that global coal exports and coal-fired power generation reached record highs in 2023 despite worldwide efforts to reduce coal use. The nonprofit think tank found that for the first time, thermal coal exports exceeded a billion metric tons as nations across the globe increasingly used coal to generate electricity.

Coal-fired power generation reached 8,295 terawatt hours (TWh) by October 2023, increasing by 1% from the same period the previous year and making history as the highest amount of coal-fired electricity on record. Ship-tracking data from Brussels-based data and analytics company Kpler shows that total thermal coal exports for the entire year hit 1.004 billion metric tons, a 6.6% increase from 2022’s total thermal coal exports.

Despite pledging to phase out coal use in power generation, many countries have turned back to the polluting fossil fuel to shore up their energy supplies amid a global energy crisis and soaring prices. European Union nations were especially affected when Russia cut natural gas supplies to Europe in 2022 and began using coal to generate power as they scrambled to satisfy their energy needs.

Unsurprisingly, emissions from coal-generated electricity increased through the year and reached record highs in October 2023 at around 7.85 billion tons of carbon dioxide and similar gases. Ember notes that this was an increase of approximately 66.7 million tons compared to the same time frame in 2022.

The data shows that despite the world’s readiness to replace coal with cleaner alternatives, the fossil fuel is still a key player in many nations’ energy mixes. Even with countries such as China deploying clean-energy systems including solar and wind at record levels, coal is still integral to the world’s power systems and will be extremely hard to replace.

A large portion of the increase in coal exports and use through 2023 is due to Asian nations such as China. The Chinese government, for instance, approved a record number of new coal plants in 2022 due to energy-security considerations while coal imports in India surged to 20.61 million tons in late 2023.

Indonesian thermal coal exports surpassed every other coal exporting nation at a record 505.4 million tons in 2023, increasing by 12%, or 54 million tons, in 2022. According to Kpler, Indonesia accounted for more than one-half of the world’s thermal coal exports for the first time ever in 2023 followed by Australia, Russia, South Africa and Colombia at 198 million tons, 103 million tons, 60 million tons and 51 million tons respectively.

While this high coal use may have been a boon for coal companies such as Peabody Energy Corporation (NYSE: BTU), the long-term prospects for this energy source are dim given the way in which the world is coalescing around the need to phase out fossil fuels.

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