China’s rich anthracite reserves stretch across a 3,000-mile-long belt at depths up to 80 meters (250 feet). Even so domestic supply is not enough. China imports large amounts of coal from Australia and other countries. In Newcastle, Australia — the world’s largest coal port — dozens of ships waiting in line for up to two weeks at time to carry coal back to China

China is the world’s largest importer of coal even though it is also the world’s largest producer of coal. China has abundant supplies of coal and produced more than 90 percent of the 4.4 billion tons it burned in 2021. China’s rose from 225 million short tons (MMst) in 2015 to about 330 million short tons in 2019. After China cut domestic coal production capacity in 2016, markets along the southeastern coasts tightened and domestic prices rose substantially, leading to a recovery in coal imports. However, after 2016, imports increased at a slower pace. China has controlled coal import levels during the past few years to aid domestic producers by leveraging import quotas or setting restrictions at various ports. Therefore, imports are determined by both market fundamentals and policy initiatives.[Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration country analysis briefs, September 30, 2020]

Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “ “Although it has plentiful domestic supplies, China imports coal because much of its own is low grade and contains impurities. Coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming tends to be low in sulfur, for example, allowing power plants to burn more without exceeding local pollution limits. Additionally, much of China’s coal is inland while the factories are on the coast; it is often easier to ship coal from North America, Australia or even South America. [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, November 21, 2010]

“China, which was a perennial coal exporter until 2009, the first year that it imported more than it sent out, is expected to import up to 150 million tons this year. The lucrative export trade with China is expected to continue, said Ian Cronshaw, head of the energy diversification division at the International Energy Agency. For some economies, China has been a lifesaver. Although Colombia’s coal exports collapsed in 2008 when demand in America and Europe plummeted, they revived this year, with 10 million tons going to Asia.”

Sources of China's Imported Coal

China is the world's largest importer of coal: with large amounts of it coming from Russia and Indonesia in the 2020s. After boycotting Australian coal in 2020, coking coal imports from Mongolia and the U.S. increased. [Source: Wikipedia

In the 2010s, Indonesia was China’s largest source of imported coal with a 46 percent share. Indonesia offers a low quality coal that blends well with China’s domestic coal. Australia ranks as the second-largest coal exporter to China with a 26 percent share and is a major supplier of metallurgical coal primarily used for steel production. Neighboring countries Mongolia and Russia have significantly increased their shares of coal exports to China during the last few years, accounting for 12 percent and 11 percent of imports, respectively, in 2019. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration country analysis briefs, September 30, 2020]

On January 1, 2022, Indonesia announced a ban on coal exports, according to Time, “ amid concerns over local shortages, leaving the world’s second largest economy in a lurch. Indonesia’s surprise announcement comes at a time of strained relations between Beijing and Washington, and a diplomatic spat between Australia and China that resulted in China implementing an unofficial ban on Australian coal imports in 2020. [Source: Amy Gunia, Time, January 12, 2022]

Although the lion’s share of the coal China uses is mined domestically, it imports coal to bolster local supply. More than 60 percent of China’s coal imports came from Indonesia in the first 11 months of 2021, which is the latest data available. In the near term, the Indonesian ban means that China might increase the amount of coal it digs up at home.

China’s imports of coal came to a near standstill in the first two months of 2021, following an unofficial ban on Aussie coal as the result of deteriorating relations between the nations. China has worked to fill the gap left by Australia, a large supplier of both thermal coal used for heating and coking coal used for steel production, with supplies from places like Indonesia, South Africa and Russia.

Chinese Coal Imports, the Global Coal Market and Climate Change

Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “Even as developed countries close or limit the construction of coal-fired power plants out of concern over pollution and climate-warming emissions, coal has found a rapidly expanding market elsewhere: Asia, particularly China. At ports in Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa, ships are lining up to load coal for furnaces in China, which has evolved virtually overnight from a coal exporter to one of the world’s leading purchasers.” [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, November 21, 2010]

“Traditionally, coal is burned near where it is mined — particularly so-called thermal or steaming coal, used for heat and electricity. But in the last few years, long-distance international coal exports have been surging because of China’s galloping economy, which now burns half of the six billion tons of coal used globally each year. As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more.”

“And the rush to feed this new Asian market has helped double the price of coal over the past five years, leading to a renaissance of mining and exploration in many parts of the world. “This is a worst-case scenario,” said David Graham-Caso, spokesman for the Sierra Club, which estimates that its “Beyond Coal” campaign has helped to block 139 proposed coal plants in the United States over the last few years. “We don’t want this coal burned here, but we don’t want it burned at all. This is undermining everything we’ve accomplished.”

When Indonesia banned coal exports in 2022, alarm bells went off in China and worries about the impact on climate change were raised by environmentalists. Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told Time. “Beijing has deep concerns about its energy security. “Indonesia turns out to be a not so reliable coal supplier for China, then I think China will think about whether the country should rely more on domestic production.” [Source: Amy Gunia, Time, January 12, 2022]

Amy Gunia wrote in Time; China already boosted domestic coal production in late 2021 to record levels after coal shortages caused blackouts and factory shutdowns, and experts say that Indonesia’s move, which came after its state power utility warned of low inventory levels that could lead to widespread power outages, may hasten the trend. That’s despite the fact that Indonesia’s ban was relatively short-lived. After a trade row with Australia in 2021 and now an Indonesian ban on exports, China’s authorities will surely reprise arguments in favor of energy security and self-sufficiency, just as they did this past winter during the coal shortages,” says Ryan Driskell Tate, a research analyst at the NGO Global Energy Monitor (GEM).

Australian Coal Exports to China

Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “For Australia, coal exports to China grew to $5.6 billion from $508 million between 2008 and 2009, government statistics show. While it still sends more coal to its longtime customers Japan and Korea, that balance could shift as Australian coal giants sink billions into new projects like China First. “They are betting that there will be great markets for coal in China,” Mr. Cronshaw said. [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, November 21, 2010]

In the summer of 2010 “an Australian company signed a $60 billion contract with a state enterprise, China Power International Development, to supply coal to Chinese power stations beginning in 2013 from a vast complex of mines, called China First, to be built in the Australian outback. It was Australia’s largest export contract ever, the company said. The deal points to the love-hate relationship many wealthier countries have with coal: while environmental laws have made it progressively harder to build new coal-fired power plants, they do not restrict coal mining to the same extent.”

“That is partly because emissions accounting standards focus on where a fuel is burned, not where it is dug up; because the coal trade is a lucrative business; and because the labor-intensive mining industry creates jobs. Such benefits are particularly hard to forgo in the midst of a recession. In the last two years, “There has been an awful lot of mining development, and much of it is based on the potential of these new markets,” said David Price, director of the global steam coal advisory service at IHS-Cera, a global energy consultancy.”

Australia, environmental groups are not happy with the arrangement. Rosenthal wrote they “have repeatedly halted trainloads of coal headed to the export docks at Newcastle this fall, and flotillas of kayaking protesters have delayed cargo pickups by Asia-bound coal ships. Julia Gillard, Australia’s newly elected prime minister, promised during her campaign to “put a price on carbon” — in other words, make companies pay in some way for excessive carbon dioxide emissions. But environmentalists say that such laws will be meaningless if the country continues its nascent coal rush and “exports global warming to the world,” as one group, Rising Tide Australia, puts it.”

American and Canadian Coal Export to China

Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “The United States now ships coal to China via Canada, but coal companies are scouting for new loading ports in Washington State. New mines are being planned for the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, some of the world’s more environmentally progressive regions are nascent epicenters of the new coal export trade, creating political tensions between business and environmental goals.” [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, November 21, 2010]

Vic Svec, senior vice president of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, told the New York Times it was “planning to send larger and larger amounts of coal” to China. “Coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world and will continue to be largely driven by the enormous appetite for energy in Asia,” he said.

In 2009 “the United States exported only 2,714 tons of coal to China, according to the United States Energy Information Administration,” Rosenthal wrote. “Yet that figure soared to 2.9 million tons in the first six months of this year alone — huge growth, though still a minuscule fraction of China’s coal imports. New mines are planned to expand the market further. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, is suing to block the lease of state-owned land in Otter Creek, Mont., to Arch Coal for mining to serve demand in Asia and elsewhere. Likewise, Peabody Energy and Australia’s Ambre Energy have been separately expanding mines and exploring the idea of opening loading ports in the Pacific Northwest.”

“In Washington State, the city of Tacoma decided Friday that it would not host a proposed coal loading plant, citing “a multitude of business and community factors.” This week officials in Cowlitz County are expected to decide whether to grant a permit for a proposed coal port in Longview, on the border with Oregon. Environmental groups will be there to oppose the port, noting that policies in both states effectively block new coal-fired plants and that both have plans to close the few that remain. “It’s one step forward, 10 steps back if we allow coal export in our region,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.”

“Likewise, environmentalists in British Columbia, which enacted the first tax on carbon dioxide emissions in North America two years ago, are incensed that Vancouver has blossomed into a major coal loading location. “It’s just hypocritical,” said Ben West, a spokesman for the Wilderness Committee, a Canadian conservation group.” In the summer of 2010 “Jim Prentice, who was then Canada’s environment minister, announced a national phase-out of dirty coal-fired plants. But mines are primarily regulated by the provinces, said Henry Lau, a spokesman for the ministry. The Canadian government adds that while it is committed to its target of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, it has to balance “environmental and economic benefits for its citizens.”The growth and shifts in coal exports to China are impressive, flowering even during the recession. Seaborne trade in thermal coal rose to about 690 million tons this year, up from 385 million in 2001.”

China Seeks More Coal in Nearby Mongolia

Andrew Higgins wrote in Washington Post, China has large quantities of coal, which provides around 70 percent of its energy, but it still needs more and is now a major importer. It particularly needs what lies just below the surface at Tavan Tolgoi: huge quantities of high-quality and easily mined coking, or metallurgical coal, which is used to manufacture steel. Mongolia’s Gobi Desert contains enough to meet China’s current level of import needs for at least 160 years. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, July 16, 2011]

Over the past few years, China has increased its imports of coking coal tenfold. Mongolia last year accounted for a third of those, and it could play an even bigger part in firing its neighbor’s steel mills as China’s mines run out of the high-grade coal required by modern blast furnaces.

Image Sources: Westport Schools; BBC; Environmental News; Tropical Island

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.