The world could burn nearly 8,000 million metric tons of coal by 2035 -- most of it in China -- unless countries radically change their energy policies, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA's World Energy Outlook released this week found that China almost singlehandedly fueled the rise in coal use throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The Asian economic giant was responsible for 80 percent of the global increase in coal demand, which itself accounted for nearly half the increase in global energy use.

Together, India and China account for more than two-thirds of the projected increase in world coal demand through 2035. Meanwhile, oil use could rise 14 percent in that time period, also mostly from the developing world.

"Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system," the IEA warned as it released the annual report.

The report notes that even if countries make good on the current policies they've proposed to ramp up the use of renewable energy, coal will continue to remain the "backbone" of power generation. But the share of more efficient power plants is expected to rise, and the IEA pointed to technologies like supercritical and ultra supercritical coal-fired plants as key to helping reduce emissions in the coming decades.

"In an environment where coal prices are rising, policy makers need to be wary of 'locking in' less efficient technology," the report notes. "The choice of power generation technology, and in particular the choice of coal-fired technology in China, will be of enormous importance for global CO2 emissions from coal use."

U.S. absence in policy noted
The report comes as countries prepare for annual U.N. climate change negotiations. While no global agreement is expected to emerge from the conference in Durban, South Africa, later this month, a number of countries are making major domestic efforts to curb emissions.

Climate policy analysts said yesterday that China could do more to scale back its rapidly growing emissions, but argued that the prime responsibility lies with the United States.

"They're doing a lot, and their carbon intensity target means a lot," said Andrew Deutz, international policy director with the Nature Conservancy. China has adopted regulations to reduce the country's carbon emissions 40 to 45 percent relative to its gross domestic product.

"They recognize that this is a problem, and they're grappling with it, which is a lot more than I can say for our government," Deutz said.

The report warns of dire consequences from global warming without major new investments in renewable and nuclear energy. Over the next 25 years, the agency predicted, greenhouse gas emissions will be equal to almost the total emissions from the previous 110 years combined and will lead to a 3.5-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures. Scientists have described a 2 percent increase as a "guardrail" beyond which the world will suffer possibly irreparable damage.

Sven Teske, international senior energy campaigner with Greenpeace, noted that in the past few years, 400,000 megawatts of new coal plants have been built in China alone. With the life span of an average coal plant about 40 years, he said, "We cannot allow a single new coal power plant worldwide if we want to stay under 2 degrees."

China, Teske said, is significantly expanding its renewable energy production and use. But the even faster coal growth, he said, is worrisome. "If India will follow the same pathway, then we have a serious problem," he said. "Countries have to agree on binding targets, they have to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies and they have to go for renewables."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500