Coal to overtake oil as main source of energy by 2020

Despite government efforts to reduce carbon emissions, coal is set to overtake oil as the world's main source of energy by 2020, with potentially devastating effects in the environment, energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie said Monday.

According to William Durbin, president of global markets at Wood Mackenzie, China and India are turning to coal since it is cheaper and more reliable than oil or renewable energy sources. In the US, Europe and the rest of Asia coal demand is expected to hold steady.

China's dependence on coal is well known. Annual consumption exceeded 1 billion short tons per year in 1988 and has exploded since then, to an estimated 4 billion tons this year. This means the Asian giant gets about 70% of its energy from the fossil fuel, a number the government hopes to reduce to 65% by 2017.

However, the consultancy doesn’t seem to agree. Speaking at the World Energy Congress, Durbin said China alone would drive two-thirds of the forecast growth in coal demand. Half of the power plants expected to built between now and the end of the decade will be coal-fired.

According to the latest report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal will be the main winner in Southeast Asia’s energy mix.

This, says the IEA, will contribute to a doubling of the region’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to 2.3 gigatonnes by 2035.

"To the degree that affordable coal has allowed hundreds of millions of people in emerging economies to enjoy the conveniences that the industrialized world began taking for granted long ago, its proliferation is a blessing," the agency’s executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, wrote last year. "Yet for a society increasingly concerned about the amount of carbon it is sending into the atmosphere, the surge in coal burning is not good news."

She added that, despite some governments’ recent initiatives to cut down on carbon emissions, the world faces the prospect of an increased risk of environmental damage as a result of a roaring consumption of the highest carbon fossil fuel.

Image: Smog over Beijing's Forbidden City/by Brian Jeffery Beggerly