When it comes to coal production, China has now caught up to the Britain of 1850

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The British government keeps excellent historical records of coal production and consumption going back to the 1850s. This data shows you a lot, the impact of World Wars, financial crashes, miners strikes, a century where a country turned half of the world pink.

It also shows something else. Britain produced as much coal per person when official records began in the 1850s as China does today. China has only just caught up to Britain when Charles Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities.

The long-term trend is shown below. Peak per-capita coal production in Britain was around 1913, at two times above the current Chinese level. In fact, Britain managed to produce coal at the current Chinese level for over a century.


The comparison with China is made even clearer by time shifting China backwards by 155 years.


You can see that China’s current per-capita production more or less matches what it was in Britain when records began.

So, in absolute terms China’s coal production is historically unprecedented. It is now four times higher than any other country in history. But in relative terms there is nothing unprecedented about it whatsoever.

Note on statistics

Historical British coal data is taken from DECC. Chinese coal data is taken from BP. Population data was taken from Gapminder. I have made a minor revision to BP’s data for 2013 to account for the recent revision in coal production. Per-capita figures were calculated in R, and I plotted the stuff using ggplot2.


One thought on “When it comes to coal production, China has now caught up to the Britain of 1850

    peter2108 said:
    March 8, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Very interesting and thanks for the sources.


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