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Coal trade to return to 2019 levels

The International Energy Agency’s mid-year Coal Market Update for 2023 brings both positive and concerning news for the global coal industry. After a tumultuous few years marked by the Covid-19 shock in 2020 and the turmoil caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the coal markets have returned to more predictable and stable patterns in 2023. Notably, coal trade is heading back to 2019 volumes, with Chinese imports leading the charge.

One significant factor contributing to the surge in coal imports is the decline in coal prices. Cheaper coal has made imports more attractive, especially for price-sensitive buyers. China, the world’s largest coal consumer and producer, has almost doubled its imports in the first half of 2023. As a result, global coal trade is projected to grow by more than 7%, outpacing overall demand growth and approaching record levels seen in 2019. Seaborne coal trade may even surpass the 2019 record of 1.3 billion tonnes.

Another reason for the upward trajectory in coal supply is the stronger financial position of coal mining companies. Despite no new large-scale projects coming online, the high prices in 2022 have left these companies with more robust balance sheets, allowing them to invest in sustaining and even expanding capital expenditures. Additionally, the end of La Niña, which hampered coal production in Australia, has bolstered the coal supply outlook for 2023, despite the retreat of coal prices from their peak.

Renewed demand

The demand side of the equation is also playing a vital role in the resurgence of coal trade.

Even the European Union, traditionally a coal importer, temporarily turned into an exporter of thermal coal due to ample inventories accumulated during the previous year and reduced coal-fired power generation.

Global coal consumption reached an all-time high in 2022 and is expected to remain near that record level in 2023. Asia, led by China, India, and Southeast Asian countries, is expected to account for a significant portion of coal consumption. China and India together are projected to use almost 75% of the world’s coal in 2023, further solidifying their dominance in the market.

Despite the positive developments in the coal industry, concerns remain regarding the environmental impact of coal usage. Coal remains the largest single source of carbon emissions from the energy sector, and while clean energy has put coal use into structural decline in Europe and the United States, demand remains stubbornly high in Asia.

To address this, the IEA emphasises the need for greater policy efforts, investments, and stronger international cooperation to drive a massive surge in clean energy and energy efficiency to reduce coal demand in rapidly growing economies.

“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.”

Forward look

The mid-year Coal Market Update also provides insights into the future of the coal industry. Global coal demand is projected to remain flat in 2024, with declines in the electricity sector offset by small increases in the industrial sector as economic conditions improve. Asia, particularly India and Southeast Asia, is expected to experience growth in coal demand, while the United States and the European Union will see further declines. China and India are set to continue dominating the global coal consumption landscape, accounting for more than half of the world’s coal use.
Source: Baltic Exchange

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