Global coal demand set to remain at record levels in 2023

Cover Of Coal Market Update July 2023 Coal Barges On A River

Continued strong growth in Asian economies offsets declines in Europe and North America, highlighting need for stronger policies and investments to accelerate growth of clean energy

Global coal consumption climbed to a new all-time high in 2022 and will stay near that record level this year as strong growth in Asia for both power generation and industrial applications outpaces declines in the United States and Europe, according to the IEA’s latest market update.

Coal consumption in 2022 rose by 3.3% to 8.3 billion tonnes, setting a new record, according to the IEA’s mid-year Coal Market Update, which was published today. In 2023 and 2024, small declines in coal-fired power generation are likely to be offset by rises in industrial use of coal, the report predicts, although there are wide variations between geographic regions.

China, India and Southeast Asian countries together are expected to account for 3 out of every 4 tonnes of coal consumed worldwide in 2023. In the European Union, growth in coal demand was minimal in 2022 as a temporary spike in coal-fired power generation was almost offset by lower use in industry. European coal use is expected to fall sharply this year as renewables expand, and as nuclear and hydropower partially recover from their recent slumps. In the United States, the move away from coal is also being accentuated by lower natural gas prices.

After three turbulent years marked by the Covid-19 shock in 2020, the strong post-pandemic rebound in 2021 and the turmoil caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, coal markets have so far returned to more predictable and stable patterns in 2023. Global coal demand is estimated to have grown by about 1.5% in the first half of 2023 to a total of about 4.7 billion tonnes, lifted by an increase of 1% in power generation and 2% in non-power industrial uses.  

By region, coal demand fell faster than previously expected in the first half of this year in the United States and the European Union – by 24% and 16%, respectively. However, demand from the two largest consumers, China and India, grew by over 5% during the first half, more than offsetting declines elsewhere.

“Coal is the largest single source of carbon emissions from the energy sector, and in Europe and the United States, the growth of clean energy has put coal use into structural decline,” said IEA Director of Energy Markets and Security Keisuke Sadamori. “But demand remains stubbornly high in Asia, even as many of those economies have significantly ramped up renewable energy sources. We need greater policy efforts and investments – backed by stronger international cooperation – to drive a massive surge in clean energy and energy efficiency to reduce coal demand in economies where energy needs are growing fast.”

The shift of coal demand to Asia continues. In 2021, China and India already accounted for two-thirds of global consumption, meaning together they used twice as much coal as the rest of the world combined. In 2023, their share will be close to 70%. By contrast, the United States and the European Union – which together accounted for 40% three decades ago and over 35% at the beginning of this century – represent less than 10% today.

The same split is observed on the production side. The three largest coal producers – China, India and Indonesia – all produced record amounts in 2022. In March 2023, both China and India set new monthly records, with China surpassing 400 million tonnes for the second time ever and India surpassing 100 million tonnes for the first time. Also in March, Indonesia exported almost 50 million tonnes, a volume never shipped by any country before. By contrast, the United States, once the world’s largest coal producer, has more than halved production since its peak in 2008.

After the extreme volatility and high prices of last year, coal prices fell in the first half of 2023 to the same levels as those seen in summer 2021, driven by ample supply and lower natural gas prices. Thermal coal returned to being priced below coking coal, and the big premium for Australian coal narrowed following the easing of disruptive La Niña weather that had hampered production. Russian coal has found new outlets after being barred in Europe, but often at considerable discounts.

Cheaper coal has made imports more attractive for some price-sensitive buyers. Chinese imports have almost doubled in the first half of this year, and global coal trade in 2023 is set to grow by more than 7%, outpacing overall demand growth, to approach the record levels seen in 2019. Seaborne coal trade in 2023 may well surpass the record of 1.3 billion tonnes set in 2019. 

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Coal markets, like those for oil and natural gas, have experienced a turbulent three years as a result of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which triggered the first truly global energy crisis. In 2023, coal markets have so far been less volatile, though more turmoil could lie ahead. This Coal Market Update – which provides the latest analysis of coal demand, production, trade and prices – finds that coal demand and supply reached an all-time high in 2022, confirming previous forecasts. It also provides preliminary estimates for the first half of 2023 and outlooks for full-year 2023 and 2024, based on recent trends and forecasts for economic growth across regions, as well as fuel and forward curves.

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