Global coal exports and power generation hit new highs in 2023

Connie Queline

Global coal exports and power generation hit new highs in 2023

Worldwide electricity generation from coal hit record highs in 2023, while thermal coal exports surpassed 1 billion metric tons for the first time as coal’s use in power systems continues to grow despite widespread efforts to cut back on fossil fuels.

Coal-fired electricity generation was 8 295 terawatt hours (TWh) through October, up 1% from the same period in 2022 and the highest on record, according to environmental think tank Ember.

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Total thermal coal exports were 1.004 billion metric tons for the whole year, up by 62.5 million tons or 6.6% from 2022, ship-tracking data from Kpler shows.

Read all our coal coverage here.

Emissions from coal-fired electricity generation also hit new highs through October 2023, topping 7.85 billion tons of carbon dioxide and equivalent gases, around 66.7 million tons more than during the same period in 2022, according to Ember. The continued expansion in coal use and emissions provides a stark reminder to climate trackers that the high-polluting power fuel remains integral in key power systems even as solar, wind and other clean energy sources are deployed at a record rate.

Growing Asian concentration 

The footprint of coal mining and exports and its use in power generation is overwhelmingly concentrated in Asia, as many other parts of the world including Europe and North America have adopted measures to phase down the use of coal for power.

But even as the geographical area of coal use and trade is shrinking, the outright volumes of extraction, exports and consumption in power plants remains on a rising trajectory.

Indonesia was the top thermal coal exporter in 2023, shipping out a record 505.4 million tons for the year, up 54 million tons or 12% from 2022’s levels.

For the first time, Indonesia accounted for more than half of all thermal coal shipments within a calendar year in 2023, Kpler data shows.

Australia was the second largest thermal coal exporter, shipping out 198 million tons, up 12.5 million tons (7%) from the year before.

Russia, South Africa and Colombia were also notable exporters, shipping 103 million tons, 60 million tons and 51 million tons respectively last year.

On the import side, China was the top thermal coal buyer, taking delivery of a record 325 million tons, which is 109 million tons more than 2022’s total.

India was the second biggest importer (172 million tons), followed by Japan (109 million tons), South Korea (80 million tons) and Taiwan (51 million tons).

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Other notable importers included the Philippines (37 million tons) and Vietnam (31 million tons), both notching up strong double-digit percentage increases in year-on-year imports.

Locked in generation 

In major coal importing nations, coal-fired electricity generation increased on the year in China, India, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam, Ember data shows.

Coal-fired output declined by 8.2% in Japan and by 4% in South Korea, but those reductions were nearly offset by the increase in Vietnam alone last year.

Globally, around 82% of all coal-fired electricity generation occurred within Asia in 2023, up from an average of around 75% in 2019, according to Ember.

Asia’s share of coal use and imports should continue to climb as other regions further reduce coal consumption.

But total volumes of Asia’s coal imports and consumption for power generation also look set to continue climbing, especially in major and fast-growing economies such as China, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, where cheap power sources remain critical for industry competitiveness.

Those same countries are also committed to steep increases in the deployment of renewable energy sources, but over the near term they look just as liable to continue steering total coal use and emissions to further heights.

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