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People inspect coal pile port

Back in late 2020, Colombia’s stated hope of saving its floundering coal industry by boosting exports to China seemed remote at best. Yet, in 2021 these sales increased by 150%, according to the National Association of Foreign Trade of Colombia (Analdex).

So, is China really a promising market for Colombian coal? At present, the picture is unclear. 3.4 million
The amount of coal (in tonnes) that Colombia exported to China in 2021, up on 1.5 million tonnes in 2020, according to SIMCO

Last year, China generated 53% of the world’s coal-based power, up from pre-pandemic levels of 50% in 2019, according to data from Ember Climate’s Global Electricity Review – though this was a small decrease on the 54% seen in 2020. Domestic coal production increased by 4.6% in 2021, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, and imports also rose to meet increased demand. China brought in 3.41 million tonnes of Colombian coal last year, up from 1.52 million in 2020, data from the Colombian System for Mining Information (SIMCO) shows.

However, longer term, China’s commitments to reduce carbon emissions could work against Colombian coal exporters, and analysts do not expect the trend to last. “Medium- and long-term expectations continue to decline,” Nicolás Rincón, director of economic affairs at Analdex, told Diálogo Chino. “China has made announcements, and now with COP26 [the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference], the decarbonisation policies for economic activities are more rigorous and committed at a global level.”

China’s quick recovery from 2020’s economic slump is one of the main reasons for the spike in coal consumption. New figures from the National Bureau of Statistics put the country’s GDP growth at 8.1% for 2021. Total energy consumption was 5.24 billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent, up 5.2% on 2020. Coal accounted for 56% of total energy generation.

Pledges and market outlook

At the UN General Assembly in September 2021, China’s president Xi Jinping declared that the country would stop public financing for coal plants abroad, an announcement that came on the first anniversary of its 2060 carbon neutrality pledge. And, in a revised climate plan launched ahead of COP26, it set a goal of peaking carbon emissions by 2030. However, it refused to sign the declaration to commit to phasing out coal use that came from the Glasgow summit.

In addition to these commitments, there are other factors that make coal less attractive. Ilaria Mazzocco, a fellow in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that coal consumption in China, and the world in general, will ultimately dip because of economic, rather than environmental reasons. Mazzocco points out that coal is increasingly a “stranded asset” – one that is devalued – since renewable sources such as solar power, for example, are in many places cheaper and more competitive.

A country that needs coal

China’s electricity consumption is on the rise, and 68% of that demand is met by coal-fired power plants, according to Ember Climate. The energy think tank also reports that China’s 337 terrawatt-hour (TWh) rise in coal power consumption in the first half of 2021 exceeded all the power generated by coal-fired plants in the European Union during the same time period.

This increase puts pressure on China’s own coal supply. Although China produced 3.67 billion tonnes of coal as of December 2021, and imported approximately 304 million tonnes in 2020, available coal still does not meet the energy needs that drive the country’s economic growth.

In late September and early October 2021, more than half of China’s provinces experienced power rationing, largely because the price of coal, which is not set by the government, increased, but the price of energy, which is set by the central government, remained static. Coal plants, then, had no economic incentive, and manoeuvred to reduce the rate of plant operation, either by ceasing to buy coal for a period, or by saying that their plants had to undergo maintenance.

Colombia coal Cerrejón
Read more: Colombia’s coal industry pins hopes of salvation on China

In the context of the global energy transition, Zhang Shuwei, head of the Draworld Environmental Research Centre in Beijing, called the combination of expensive coal prices and power shortages “the right price at the wrong time” – meaning that such prices will be essential in the future to help bring about peak carbon and carbon neutrality, but are not ideal at a time of energy crunch.

Professor Yuan Jiahai, an energy expert at North China Electric Power University, recently told China Dialogue that supply and demand issues, rather than the government’s peak emissions pledges were the key factor in last year’s shortages: “Coal shortages have resulted from some localities rushing to close coal mines. But overall, the reduction of coal output has been a long-term trend that has little to do with the government’s recent campaign to cut emissions.”

According to Mazzocco, the shortage had more to do with poor planning. “There wasn’t a proper projection of what the demand was going to be. This had more to do with institutions than with policies to reduce carbon emissions,” she said. China’s response was to produce more coal and set price caps of 1,200 yuan (US$188) per tonne on Chinese coal, pushing prices back down.

“China has basically opened wide its floodgates for coal production,” Natalie Biggs, global head of thermal coal market research at Wood Mackenzie, told Diálogo Chino. “They’re going to open new mines that weren’t scheduled to open yet, and they gave the green light to 47 open-pit mines [in China] that had environmental or land issues, pushing China’s coal production.”

Biggs and her team explained that open-pit mines generally have to apply for new land to continue mining operations when coal resources in existing lands are close to being exhausted. Mines need an exploration permit from the Chinese government, and the environmental bureau checks if companies have fulfilled environmental protection plans for the land they currently mine within. Mine owners must then draw environmental protection plans for new lands.

“There are many issues for mines to get the approvals with new lands,” Biggs said, adding that “land and environmental issues are the key ones”.

The effect on Colombia

Colombia is the world’s 47th highest emitter, according to data from the World Population Review, accounting for 0.23% of global annual emissions. The nation made no commitments at COP26 related to coal production, only to overall emissions reductions; one of the main pledges made by the government of president Iván Duque was to reduce CO2 emissions by 51% by 2030. The government has also adopted a 2050 carbon neutrality target.

Although the long-term plan includes no concrete mitigation measures nor sectoral targets, it does indicate that the mining ministry is working on a plan to offset emissions from Colombian coal burned abroad. On December 2020, Glencore, the sole owner of El Cerrejón, the largest coal mine in Latin America and one of the biggest in the world, also pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Colombia’s boosted sales of coal to China last year generated a revenue bonanza for the country, influenced by economic and geopolitical factors. Because of the way mining royalties and taxes are structured in Colombia, coal revenues have a strong impact on national and local government budgets. While in 2020, the economic downturn of the pandemic caused coal prices to slump to US$33 per tonne, by 2021 they shot to over US$200.

“There was an increase in demand in 2021, but supply does not adapt to it very quickly,” Rincón told Diálogo Chino. “So oil starts to go up, coal starts to go up and other types of products start to go up.” He added that China’s trade tensions with established suppliers also benefitted Colombia. In 2021, China froze imports of Australian coal, its second largest supplier after Indonesia, due to misgivings over an Australian investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

More Colombian coal to China?

“China is importing a huge amount of coal this year [this interview was conducted in 2021], and it is abnormal. Not to say that Colombia can’t [continue to] export to China, but it won’t export significantly. It won’t grow like it did,” Biggs predicted.

According to Biggs, Colombia was a stable supplier of good quality, low-cost coal to international markets, but with Atlantic markets such as Europe in decline, Colombia must look to the Pacific for growth.

But it faces a major obstacle in its distance – being the furthest away among China’s foreign coal suppliers. If it lost its competitive edge because of transport costs, Colombia could go from being the world’s fifth largest coal exporter to a marginal country in the international market, Biggs added.

According to Juan Miguel Durán, president of the National Mining Agency, the Colombian government has offered a three-pronged response to the troubled coal sector.

China’s huge imports of coal in 2021 were abnormal. Colombia can continue to export to China, but it won’t do so significantly.

The first strand is the promotion of coal in Asian markets during business conferences. This solution faces a difficulty. Although conferences might help producers to network and make business contacts, it will not change the problem of the distance and its costs, which lies at the heart of the Colombia–China coal trade. The second is the “Coal Agenda”, which seeks to improve competitiveness and best practices, and strengthen institutions, according to Tatiana Lorena Aguilar, director of the Directorate of Corporate Mining at the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy. The third is diversifying overall mining activity to compensate for lost revenues from coal.

“The National Mining Agency has discussed exploring other types of minerals, such as copper, in which we can diversify the mining export matrix,” said Rincón.

Finally, Biggs said that while China will not finance new coal plants in Colombia, Chinese companies have expressed interest in acquiring coal mines in the country. Colombian media reported mining and energy minister Diego Mesa as having said that Chinese companies might be interested in the Prodeco mine in César department, formerly owned by Canada’s Glencore, or El Cerrejón in La Guajira department. Negotiations between Chinese companies and the latter’s major shareholders BHP Billiton and Anglo American are believed to be ongoing.

Despite China’s potential direct participation in Colombian coal production partially mitigating its decline in European markets, none of the analysts contacted for this article believe it will be a significant factor in turning around negative forecasts for the South American country’s struggling industry.