Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Coal: Act Locally, Think Globally .... NOT!

Interesting article in the NYTimes on the global trade in coal. The basic point: while developed countries move to limit the use of coal as a fuel for electrical generation in order to reduce emissions, that very same coal is being sold to China. Moreover, where the coal was traditionally burned close to where it was mined, now it is shipped thousands of miles -- with the additional cost in emissions. And, to make it even more problematic, as demand has grown so has the price and, hence, more production and new mines. In short, local action to reduce emissions is going for nothing at the global level as those emissions are merely being relocated.

The graph above shows that the vast majority of countries are either importing less coal or exporting more of it. The one major exception, China, which has gone from a net exporter to a net importer in the two years between 2007 and 2009.

As the above map shows, there are a large number of countries involved in the trading of coal. The bulk of the shipments to China, however, come from Australia and Indonesia.


  1. Yes, the coal we don't use is being shipped to China. So is the oil we don't use and the natural gas we don't use. In fact, nearly every fuel, metal or mineral that the OCED successfully limits for the sake of efficiency and sustainability is being sold to China. Jeff Rubin says that all the auto miles we don't drive in the OCED for the sake of efficiency or ecology are being shifted to the developing world, who are driving ever-increasing miles, especially China.

  2. This phenomenon has been called by one writer "the geopolitical Jevon's Paradox". Efficiencies that reduce the consumption of fuel in one part of the world are not "saved"; they are simply shifted to other regions of the world where demand is increasing.