The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China now burning as much coal as the rest of the world combined

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Want a better sense for why climate change is such a daunting problem? Check out this striking new chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

China's coal use grew 9 percent in 2011, rising to 3.8 billion tons. At this point, the country is burning nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined.

Coal, of course, is the world's premier fossil fuel, a low-cost source of electricity that kicks a lot of carbon-dioxide up into the atmosphere. And China's growing appetite is a big reason why global greenhouse-gas emissions have soared in recent years, even as the United States and Europe have managed to curtail their coal use and cut their carbon pollution.

Will this last? That's the big question. Chinese coal use slipped a bit in 2012 as the country's economy slowed. And the International Energy Agency expects Chinese coal demand to taper off in the coming years, growing at a slower 3.7 percent annual pace between 2011 and 2016. Other projections from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggest that China coal use will peak by 2030 (pdf), as the nation shifts to cleaner forms of energy.

There's just one catch: India is also growing rapidly and demanding ever more coal. By 2017, the IEA expects India to become the world's second-largest coal consumer, surpassing the United States.