The Emperors King Coal, part 1 – Introduction
Part 1 out of 6, in this “King Coal” series by Juha Tuominen. Juha is a foreigner living in Beijing since 2008. Having worked several years in central government-controlled industries such as energy, this article also reflects the writer’s own experiences and observations on how things work or do not work in China.
Coal has been the primary energy source for the world for a few centuries. It is said to be the fuel of the industrial revolution some 200 years ago. Still today coal is the second most widespread energy source after oil, and International Energy Association (IEA) estimates coal’s share at around 31% of the global energy mix. IEA also forecasts coal energy to keep growing. One of the main reasons for this is that practically all countries on the globe have some coal reserves on their soil, making it an easy domestic energy option, especially in developing countries at the beginning of their “own industrial revolution.” In addition, due to the widespread and abundant reserves, coal will outlast oil by far.
When talking about coal, the first country that comes to mind is China. The world’s biggest nation has become notoriously famous in international media for its air quality problems during the last decade or so. A significant factor behind the issues is coal usage for energy and heating. In fact, China is by far the biggest coal consumer accounting for roughly half of global coal consumption. The next two places go to the US and India, who together are responsible for about 20 percent of global coal consumption.
China’s long-lasting double-digit economic growth had a significant impact on the use of coal during the last decade. Another way of looking at it is to say that the growing coal industry had a considerable role in China’s economic growth. It is estimated that between 2005 and 2012, up to 18 percent of the country’s GDP came from industries using coal as a primary fuel or raw material.
In terms of annual energy consumption, China passed the US as the world’s biggest energy consumer already in 2009. Today China consumes about 30% more energy than the US. And with a growing economy, energy consumption is also growing, almost four percent annually. But the country is determined to clean up its coal habits according to the pledges China has made for environmental protection and emission reduction.
Pressure for change comes of course from the international community, but foremost from the Chinese citizens who have become more and more aware of the health issues related to air quality. At the same time, the country is starting to struggle with slowing economic growth and the central government’s biggest worry is employment to maintain social stability. In these circumstances making drastic changes in the labor-intensive coal industry is not that simple.
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