Coal prices have climbed to their highest level in a decade, making the fuel a hot commodity in a year when governments are pledging reductions in carbon emissions.
A shortfall of natural gas, rebounding electricity usage and scanty rainfall in China have lifted demand for thermal coal. Supplies have been crimped by a closed mine in Colombia, flooding in Indonesia and Australia and distorted trade flows caused by a Chinese ban on Australian coal.
Prices for thermal coal—which power plants burn to boil water into steam, spin turbines and generate electricity—have more than doubled over the past year as a result. Coal delivered into northwest Europe earlier this month hit its highest price since November 2011, having climbed 64% in 2021. Prices for coal exported from Newcastle in Australia, most of which heads to Asia, have risen 56%, according to Argus Media.
Both coal-price benchmarks have outstripped gains in oil, copper and other commodity markets that are benefiting from a vaccine-fired burst of economic activity. The upswing in fuel markets is contributing to higher electricity prices in the U.S. and Europe. Central banks are grappling with a jump in inflation powered in part by rising raw-material costs, though highflying commodities such as lumber have lost steam of late.
The rally is a reminder that efforts to wean power systems off coal to limit planet-warming emissions are in their early stages, and may prove halting while the fuel competes with other energy sources. The world’s appetite for coal peaked in 2014 and is unlikely to return to pre-coronavirus levels, the International Energy Agency forecasts. But analysts say spurts of demand, coupled with a dearth of investment in new supplies, could lead to spells of higher prices.