Back in April, in the midst of a contentious trade spat and unofficial coal embargo between China and Australia, Oilprice speculated that the winner of the battle may not be either of the nations involved, but the United States. As China refused Australian coal imports, other coal-producing nations were all too happy to step up and fill the demand. Now, as the dust settles, it’s clear that the winner was not only the United States but some other less likely contenders, including India, Indonesia, Mongolia and Russia.
While China has been talking a big game about decarbonizing, the nation still consumes gargantuan volumes of coal day to day, with coal accounting for more than half of the country’s energy mix. President Xi Jinping surprised the world with his unexpectedly lofty climate pledges in late 2020, when he promised that China would reach peak oil consumption by just 2030 and then achieve all-out carbon neutrality by 2060. At the same time that Beijing was making these pledges out of one side of its mouth, however, China was also ramping up coal production both domestically and overseas, imperiling global climate goals while also presenting itself as a leader in the decarbonization initiative.
Such is the magnitude of China’s coal addiction that when China ramped up its trade spat with Australia by instituting an informal boycott of Australian coal, entire Chinese cities went dark. The unofficial embargo was just the latest in a far lengthier saga of intensifying political tensions between China and Australia in the last two years. “Relations between the two nations soured last year after Australia supported an international inquiry into China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” CNBC reported toward the end of 2020. Coal was not the only Australian good being boycotted, but the outsized effects of the coal ban “revealed the lengths to which China is willing to go for a bit of geopolitical strong-arming,” as Oilprice reported in April of this year.
The blackouts didn’t last long, however, as coal producers around the world stepped up to fill the gaps left in the vast demand of the world’s largest coal importer, as well as to buy up the price-reduced Australian coal. In April, at the height of the saga, when Australian coal-bearing ships were stranded in Chinese waters, India purchased a record amount of Australian thermal coal. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan also bought increased amounts of the cheap Australian thermal coal, which was suddenly far more affordable than its South African counterpart of a similar grade. These disruptions are continuing to ripple through global supply chains. “Global trade flows will be self-adjusting with Australian coal flowing to Indian and European markets and South African and Colombian sources coming into China,” Winston Han, chief analyst from China Coal Transportation and Distribution Association, was recently quoted by Reuters.
Thermal coal importers were not the only beneficiaries of the spat between China and Australia. “The ban has also benefited coal exporters in Indonesia, Mongolia and Russia as China’s buyers switched suppliers, according to the latest Chinese customs data,” Reuters reported, noting that Indonesian coal miners inked a $1.5 billion supply deal with China in November 2020. The United States, Canada, and Russia, have also reaped the benefits of China’s increased appetite for high-quality metallurgical coal outside of Australia. China has had to pay a premium for this kind of coal used in the steelmaking process, as U.S. coal is more expensive and incurs higher shipping costs.
This scramble for coal market share is taking place at a time when experts are imploring world leaders and industry executives to leave coal in the ground. Just this month, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres introduced the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as a “code red for humanity” that must sound as a “death knell for coal.” But while we have reached the point of no return for global warming, the coal trade and consumption in China shows that coal will not be stamped out overnight.