China may be embracing wind power, making it their third largest source of energy behind hydro and thermal, but recent data from U.S. government sources put their coal use as almost equal to that of the rest of the world combined.

The fact that China is investing heavily in renewable or “green” energy sources is put into context by the fact that China is exploiting all available energy sources – green, polluting, emissions-heavy, water-intensive, etc.

From the Guardian:

The country’s appetite for the carbon-intensive fuel rose by 9% in 2011, to 3.8bn tonnes, meaning it now accounts for 47% of worldwide coal consumption.

In 2007 China became the world’s largest emitter of CO2 and in 2010 the largest consumer of energy.

According to statistics from the CIA World Factbook 2012, however, China ranks 88 in the world in per capita energy consumption. Sort of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

After all, China is the largest country in the world, so, in a way, they should be the largest consumer of energy. Yet the per capita statistics reveal that the average resident of China is far greener than anyone in Europe, the US and most even moderately developed nations. Being located in colder climates plays a role, but the main player is economics. Poor people don’t use that much energy, and despite the proliferation of mega-cities and rapid development, most of China is still very poor.

Coal barge on the Yangtze, pic: Marshall Segal (Flickr CC)

Coal in China is plentiful and cheap. The problem, besides all the CO2, is that it’s also very dangerous to human health. Air quality in China has been especially hazardous recently, even prompting the country’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, to acknowledge the problem and call for energy conservation and industrial restructuring. Read more on that in the Wall Street Journal.

From the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

Robust coal demand growth in China is the result of a more than 200% increase in Chinese electric generation since 2000, fueled primarily by coal. China’s coal demand growth averaged 9% per year from 2000 to 2010, more than double the global growth rate of 4% and significantly higher than global growth excluding China, which averaged only 1%.

An article in Time Magazine refers to additional fears that India may surpass China in coal burning by 2017. Why? They’re the second largest country and also significantly poorer than China. Pretty straight forward stuff.

So basically, these headlines are not shocking, but they are depressing – on several levels.

Shanghai smog, pic: Oliver Laumann (Flickr CC)