Coal Magical Thinking from the IEA

Energy Aware

Coal demand will peak in 2023 and begin to decline in 2024 and beyond (Figure 1).

Figure 1. IEA global coal consumption expected to peak in 2023 and decline for the next three years. Source: IEA.

That’s the good news in a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued in December. Coal is important because coal accounted for about 44% of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2022. If the IEA’s forecast is right then efforts to contain climate change are making important progress.

“A historic turning point could arrive soon. The International Energy Agency’s latest
projections see coal demand peaking within this decade under today’s policy
settings, primarily as a result of the structural decline in coal use in developed
economies and a weaker economic outlook for China.”


This is magical thinking. China currently has 243 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power plants under construction, or permitted for construction. One gigawatt is the equivalent of one large coal power plant.

Coal-fired capacity in China is likely to increase for the next five years Even if all plant construction were stopped today, capacity would continue to increase through 2026 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Coal-fired capacity in China is likely to increase for the next five years. Source: CREA

“China has continued a coal power plant permitting spree that started in 2022. The first half of 2023 saw 52 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power permitted, maintaining the previous rhythm of permitting two coal power plants per week.”


The IEA acknowledges that new coal plant openings and approvals are substantial but argues that most of this is to maintain base-load and peaking demand.

“The key to this development is a steep upward trajectory in renewable generation, which grows faster than electricity demand. We assume that hydro availability rebounds after a two-year low, and that the accelerating growth in wind and solar capacity bears fruit.”


The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIAEI) presents a very different picture about coal use in its recent International Energy Outlook 2023. The EIA expects world coal consumption to increase slightly (+349 million short tons) by 2050 (Figure 3). China consumption will fall the most (-864 short tons) but will be nearly offset by India’s increase (+806 short tons). Other Asia-Pacific consumption will rise almost as much as India (+666 short tons).

Figure 3. EIA expects world coal consumption to increase slightly by 2050. China consumption will fall the most but will be nearly offset by India’s increase. Other Asia-Pacific consumption will rise almost as much as India. Source:  EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc

Most of the world’s coal consumption is for generating electric power. That is why there is so much climate-related emphasis on replacing coal with renewable sources of electricity. IEA states in Coal 2023 that,

“The backbone of our estimate is the rise in renewable generation exceeding growth in electricity demand.”


Once again, the EIA presents a very different view. It expects that coal consumption for electric power generation will increase slightly in spite of an a substantial increase in renewable energy capacity of almost +3% per year (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Coal consumption to increase +6 Quad Btu by 2050 for electric power (+0.1%/yr). Renewables to increase +119 quads (+2.8%/yr), natural gas +44 quads (0.8%/yr) and nuclear +7 quads (+0.8%/yr). Source:  EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.                                        

The EIA published its coal report one month before the IEA published Coal 2023. Why wouldn’t the IEA have at least referenced the obvious and glaring differences?

To make matters worse, I compared IEA’s estimates for 2022 coal production and consumption from Coal 2023 and its World Energy Outlook 2023 (WEO 2023) published a month earlier.

2022 historical coal consumption was 8,415 million tons in Coal 2023 but only 5,807 million tons in WEO 2023. Historical coal production for 2022 was 8,582 million tons in Coal 2023 but only 6,122 million tons in WEO 2023 (Figure 5). Those discrepancies are 45% for consumption and 40% for production.

It is possible that the discrepancy in consumption/demand may be between primary and delivered use although that is not stated. Production is more difficult to reconcile.

Figure 5. 2022 coal consumption is +2,608 (+45%) million tons more in IEA Coal 2023 than in IEA WEO 2023. Production is +2,460 (+40%) million tons more. Source:  IEA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.                    

Coal is the single most important contributor to man-made CO2 emissions and is, therefore, central to efforts to address climate change and related environmental and ecological damage. Although the IEA acknowledges the uncertainty in its forecast and recognizes the serious climate-change challenges ahead, its headline conclusions will not be taken that way. Coal 2023 will be interpreted to mean that coal emissions are under control or will be in the near future.

It is irresponsible and dangerous for the IEA not to present the credible counterpoint to its position that coal consumption and supply will decline beginning in 2024 that the EIA provides.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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  1. Richard DP on February 11, 2024 at 1:52 am

    Any thoughts on the depletion of coal fields and subsequent rise in cost?

  2. EnergyAndEntropy on January 11, 2024 at 12:47 am

    For non-geologists – No matter how fossil fuels extraction is highly mechanised and fossil fuels-powered – the number of humans required for the task end-to-end is no less than as if the process is done by hands using buckets and ropes.

    This is the newly coined paradox – after Jevons’

    Watching a colony of ants in the wild, Dr. Joseph Tainter has touched on this observation decades ago – when he and others documented that almost all the observed colony has actually marched, in a very long line, for energy resources.

    Fossil fuels are not enough to extract fossil fuels – they need humans to achieve the task or the process stops.

    To that extent, extracting 8 billion tonnes of coal annually, 100 million barrel of oil and atmospheres of natural gas daily – requires 8 billion people working flat out, 24/7 – strong.

    When generating 1 GW/h of electricity takes 10 million cubic feet of natural gas – per hour – there is no enough n. gas on earth to satisfy demand.

    Iraq alone lacks 100+ GW/h of grid electricity due to non-available natural gas supplies – no matter how Iraq is close to Qatar.

    If Iraq sourced all what it requires of n. gas daily from Qatar – all Qatar’s n. gas would not be enough for that, only if half of Iran’s n. gas is added to it, too.

    From 1724 on – coal is not a luxury fuel for demand for coal to peak – ever

    It might be that the IEA report wanted to state, instead, that – coal extraction would switch to – hand-picking – as oil becomes more and more scarce by the hour – where people in the future would be organised in coal-extraction gulags and concentration camps – like ant marching lines – A Peak Energy Musical Charis Game.

    No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores” (2017).

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