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Coal consumption is expanding after two years of decline, but miners should brace for another period of sluggish growth, according to the International Energy Agency.
In its latest annual report, the IEA forecasts global coal demand will remain essentially stable over the next five years, inching up by just over 1 percent between 2017 and 2023. The reason for coal's stagnation remains unchanged from recent years: Developed nations are ditching the fossil fuel, while India and other emerging economies are turning to coal to quickly scale up electric power generation.
"In a growing number of countries, the elimination of coal-fired generation is a key climate policy goal. In others, coal remains the preferred source of electricity and is seen as abundant and affordable," said the IEA, a Paris-based agency that advises developed nations on energy policy.
The IEA's forecast comes on the heels of a series of reports that the world is falling short of commitments to prevent catastrophic impacts from climate change and running out of time to take action. Burning coal for electric power and industrial purposes such as steelmaking is a major contributor to global warming.
"Fossil fuels are going to be with us for a long time," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in the report. "That is why the only way to tackle our long-term climate goals and address the urgent health impacts of air pollution, while also ensuring that more people around the world have access to energy, will require an approach that integrates strong policies with innovative technologies."
In 2023, the IEA sees the world consuming just over 5.4 billion tons of coal equivalent.
At that level, coal would provide 25 percent of the world's energy, down from 27 percent today. The agency sees cheap, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy sources continuing to eat into coal's share of the global energy mix.
Falling consumption in China, the world's biggest market for coal, will be a major headwind for the fuel in the coming years. The nation's coal consumption is poised to fall by about half a percent each year through 2023, the IEA projects.
That's due to policies aimed at improving the nation's notoriously poor air quality, as well as China's ongoing transformation from an energy-hungry industrial behemoth to a services-oriented economy. By 2020, the IEA expects growth in coal-fired power generation in China to peak.
Meanwhile, the IEA sees India's appetite growing by 4 percent per year through 2023. That's down from an average of more than 6 percent growth over the last decade. Nevertheless, India's appetite for coal will increase by 150 million tons of coal equivalent by 2023, which means the subcontinent will account for the biggest absolute growth in consumption.
Coal demand will grow at the fastest clip in Southeast Asia, where countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam are building new coal-fired power plants to support economic development. Growth in the region is expected to rise by 5.7 percent through 2023, the IEA forecasts.
In the United States and Europe, coal demand is poised to drop by more than 2 percent each year as developed economies continue to shut down coal plants in favor of natural gas and renewable energy.
Higher demand and tight supplies have been pushing up prices for coal and supporting robust seaborne trade in the fossil fuel. China's imports have been recovering since 2017, and big importers such as Brazil, South Korea and Malaysia took in record shipments last year.
The IEA expects the coal trade to expand in 2018 but forecasts it will turn lower in the following years. In 2023, the IEA said, shipments will total 782 million tons of coal equivalent, roughly in line with last year's levels.
However, higher prices are not leading to investments in new mines, the IEA said. That's largely because local opposition and policies aimed at combating climate change create uncertainty about future demand. The recent downturn that bankrupted major miners is also keeping many investors on the sidelines.
"Banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, utilities and other operators in advanced economies are exiting the coal business," the IEA said. "In many parts of the world, growing opposition to coal projects has provided strong disincentives for investors."