Despite international conferences, treaties and worldwide publicity efforts to reduce dependence on coal, the consumption of the dirtiest and most carbon-intense of the fossil fuels is increasing at an almost geometric pace. Coal is closing a long-time gap between oil, the leading source of energy, and at the current pace may soon surpass it.
The chart measures consumption of the various energy sources from 1965 to 2010 in millions of tons of oil equivalent. Coal and oil were almost even at the start of the period, with oil climbing rapidly during the late 1960s, leading up to the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973-74. This caused a slight crimp but consumption again surged over the rest of the decade (driven mainly by oil price controls in the United States) until it collapsed after the second Oil Shortage in 1979. With the economic recovery of 1983, however, it has climbed steadily ever since.
Coal consumption remained fairly dormant through three decades until suddenly surging after 2000. This mainly represents the economic boom in China and India. China now produces half the world's coal and still finds it necessary to import more. Consumption fell of slightly with the financial meltdown of 2008 but has now resumed growth at an even faster pace.
Natural gas consumption has grown steadily at a little faster pace than oil and almost caught coal around 2000 before coal consumption in China surged. All three fossil fuels have risen rapidly over the last two years.
Despite all the talk about nuclear power, its consumption rose only modestly from 1980 to 2000 and has since leveled off. Hydroelectricity is actually growing faster than nuclear and recently surpassed it as China and other developing nations continue to build large-scale dam projects. The contribution from renewable sources such as wind and solar remains negligible. The figures are from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2011.
Like the government budget gaps that keep getting bigger and bigger even as politicians talk of reducing them, so fossil fuel consumption, particularly that of coal, continues to rise even as the world talks of reducing it.