Along with our neighbour Indonesia, Australia is at the top of the global coal exporter list. While Australian mining export volumes have certainly slumped since their peak during the last decade, our coal mining industry exported A$37.9B worth of coal in the 2014/15 financial year. So where’s all the coal going? This handy infographic from CarbonBrief breaks down the journey for coal trade around the world.

For our coal exports, quality trumps quantity

Surprisingly, it’s Japan rather than China that takes the number one position in the market for Australian coal and that’s down to the different types of coal both these countries are using and for which purposes.


Japan imports Australia’s black (or also known as metallurgical) coal for use in steel production. According to the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Australia has the fifth largest resources of black coal in the world.

Because Japan, along with South Korea and India need to produce high-grade steel to be used in the manufacturing of vehicles such as cars, trucks, trains and ships as well as cement production. While there’s a demand for the strength and durability of steel, there will be a demand for metallurgical coal.


China – a country that has previously occupied the top spot for our coal exports, has different needs and uses Australia’s brown (or thermal) coal for energy production. Coal is the major source of energy in China. China’s domestic growth boom was a major contributor to the huge export volumes of Australian brown coal over the last decade, so it makes sense that as their need for energy production has slowed, so have our thermal coal exports.

China has also spent the last decade developing their own coal mining capacity and has the third largest total coal reserves in the world, sitting behind the USA and Russia. But, like the rest of the world, China is looking very closely at the environmental impact of coal mining for energy use and earlier this year, the Chinese government placed a moratorium on banning the construction of new coal mines for a period of three years.

tracking the travel route of australian coal

As for the other nations importing our coal, many of them are our regional neighbours such as Vietnam and Europe is there too, with some of EU’s manufacturing nations such as Germany, Italy and France using Australian metallurgical steel for machinery manufacturing.

Coal export figures aren’t the same as coal production figures

Like any group of statistics, it’s important to put them into context. To build this infographic, Carbon Brief used data from the UN Comtrade Database, a repository of official trade statistics. It also simplifies and amalgamates the number of global trade flows. The infographic deals with coal traded internationally, which doesn’t represent a country’s total coal production, as most of the coal each nation produces is actually used domestically.

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‘That led us to basically go to a simple strategy: That is, produce where we sell,” Oberhelman said. “If we were solely an exporter, we’d be a lot more exposed,’ he said.