The response to the Covid‑19 outbreak has curtailed electricity use and industrial production in most countries, pushing down global coal consumption. The size of the economic impact and the speed of recovery from it in the main coal-consuming jurisdictions will determine the ultimate size of the decline in global coal use in 2020.

Annual change in coal demand, 1971-2020


Global total coal demand, 1971-2020


First quarter of 2020 - compared with first quarter of 2019

We expect global coal demand to fall by 8% in Q1 2020 relative to Q1 2019. This significant drop was driven by lower demand in the electricity sector, where two-thirds of coal is consumed: coal power generation fell by around 10%. Industrial use of coal also declined during the period, although reported increases in coal use for steel production in China mitigated the decline.

In China, where more than half of the world’s coal is consumed, the Covid‑19 outbreak triggered a marked decline in coal demand because coal supplies 60% of primary energy and an even higher share of electricity. Coal consumption fell by 8% in Q1 2020 compared with 2019 as the economy contracted by 6.8% and coal power generation fell by close to 9%. Industrial production fell sharply; in January and February, automobile production declined by almost 50% and cement production by 30%, with a slight recovery afterwards.

In India, the economy had not yet fully recovered from last year’s slowdown when the government mandated the lockdown of the whole country on March 24. Electricity demand and industrial production declined significantly in late March, likely leading to a new decline in India’s coal use in Q1 2020, after the drop in 2019.

In the United States, a mild winter and the abundance of natural gas pushed gas prices down. Along with expanding renewables, this further squeezed coal out of the market. The decline in electricity use after the first states started lockdowns pushed coal use down even further, by around 30% in Q1 2020, with coal’s share in the power mix falling below 20% for the first time since the widespread development of coal-fired electricity generation in the 21st century.

In the European Union, coal demand fell by more than 20% in Q1 2020. The Covid‑19 outbreak and shrinking electricity demand during lockdowns added pressure on coal use, which was already falling because of low gas prices, a mild winter and increasing renewable output, which was also supported by favourable weather conditions. The, fall in CO2 allowances did not improve coal’s competitiveness with gas in the power sector and therefore was not much relief for coal, which declined 20% in Q1.

Full year projections for 2020

We expect global coal demand to fall by about 8% in 2020, the largest drop since World War II, with coal use declining in virtually every sector of every region in the world.

In China, coal demand will decline in 2020 by around 5%, despite the gradual recovery since February lockdown. Coal-fired power generation will be hit especially hard, because the power system is crowded by low variable cost hydro, wind, solar and nuclear power. If a more favourable dispatch for coal power plants is established, this could offer some relief for coal power producers.

An even greater decline in coal demand is expected in India, where economic growth and power production are slowing significantly. Despite the recovery expected later in the year, a decline in coal power generation will push coal use down for the second year in a row.

In the rest of the world, coal demand will decline steeply in 2020. Even in Southeast Asia, the region with fastest growth in the recent years, where coal power generation is curtailed by lower electricity demand, especially in Malaysia and Thailand. We also expect significant declines in coal demand in advanced economies: by 25% in the United States, around 20% in the European Union, and 5% to 10% in Korea and Japan.

In the current situation, the uncertainty about the outlook for coal is the highest among all fuels. In large part, this is because its use is concentrated in the power sector, and is strongly dependent on the level of electricity demand. In particular, coal is dominant in China and India, the largest and the third-largest electricity users in the world. In addition, the use of coal in power generation is squeezed by low-carbon generation, including hydro, wind, solar and nuclear power, which have been less affected by the Covid‑19 crisis. Hence, differences in economic activity and the associated electricity demand have an outsized effect on coal-fired electricity generation and overall coal consumption.

For example, global coal use could decline only half as much if China and other large consumers of coal recover more quickly from the crisis. Even so, many trends would remain unchanged, such as double-digit percentage drops in the European Union and the United States, single-digit declines in Japan and Korea, and a drop in India. In some markets, coal demand may even grow if recoveries are faster, such as in Southeast Asia, driven by Indonesia and Viet Nam.

Projections of 2020 coal trends need a final caveat regarding China, as the Chinese government has pledged to implement a fiscal and monetary stimulus to its economy. The magnitude and design of that stimulus – as well as how energy-, electricity- and coal-intensive it is – might change coal use trends significantly in China and therefore in the world.