International coal trade

In 2018, international coal trade was 1 420 million tonnes or 21% of world coal production which totalled 6 782 million tonnes. Of this, 1 210 million tonnes were transported across the oceans, being the seaborne coal trade. These data show that coal is mainly used in the vicinity of deposits. In addition, lignite production was 801 million tonnes in 2018. There is little international trade in lignite.

Global coal and lignite production and international coal trade, 1980 to 2019 (IEA, 2020)

Coal from mines with low production costs and good transport links to sea ports can be delivered competitively to overseas consumers. Since the oil crises of the 1970s, the growth in global coal trade has allowed the world to shift away from an overreliance on oil to the extent that oil is now rarely used for utility-scale power generation.

Seaborne trade can be further divided into coking coal trade and steam coal trade. In 2018, seaborne steam coal trade grew to 906 million tonnes, with a further 304 million tonnes of coking coal. Overland cross-border deliveries added an estimated 210 million tonnes to international coal trade.

The market for steam coal can be subdivided into Pacific and Atlantic markets, each with different supply patterns. By contrast, the coking coal market is a more uniform world market, reflecting the small number of supply countries: principally Australia, the United States, Canada, Russia and Mongolia.

Important exporting countries for hard coal are Indonesia, Australia, Russia, the United States, Colombia and South Africa who together accounted for around 91% of all coal exports in 2018.

World traded coal flows in 2018 (Source: VDKi, 2019)

The top coal importing countries are China, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan together accounting for 65% of coal trade. In the EU, Germany and Poland were the biggest importers in 2018.

Imported hard coal makes a significant contribution to the EU’s security of energy supply and offers a competitive fuel which can be easily and safely transported and stocked. In 2018, 12% of all coal exports were destined for EU member states. Leading exporters to the EU are Russia, Colombia, the United States, Australia and South Africa.

See Coal industry across Europe for more on coal production and use, including a section on the International Coal Market and Global Energy Trends.