China now consumes 4 billion tonnes of coal each year. There is no question this is historically unprecedented. In terms of volume it is four times more than any other country in history.
The fact that China consumes half of the world’s coal is not without precedent. Britain did something similar during and before the Industrial Revolution.
But in relative terms China’s coal consumption is far from unprecedented. In fact, today China and America consume essentially the same amount of coal on a per-capita basis.
Here is per-capita coal consumption in both countries from 1965 to 2013:
The difference in per-capita coal consumption was only 1% between the two countries in 2013.
China’s coal consumption is still growing, but it is still 33% or so lower than it was when America’s per-capita coal consumption peaked in 2000. Likewise, America’s per-capita coal consumption was above current Chinese levels for the last 50 years.
Americans who point to Chinese coal as a reason to not cut CO2 emissions are clearly engaged in little more than special pleading, a family pissing in a pool all the more because they have eyed up a bigger family that has entered that pool.
Note on data
Generation data taken from the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy. For a discussion of the uncertainties in Chinese coal data read this recent post. Population data is from Gapminder. Estimates for China’s population in 2014 are not available.