More coal is buried in the United States and China than anywhere else on earth. Left in place, these nations’ massive coal reserves are among some of the most effective natural carbon-capture and storage devices. Decisions to tap and utilize Chinese and U.S. coal will play a significant role in determining the future of the global climate.

Mapping the common conditions surrounding coal in China and the United States provides opportunities for cooperation between these two nations. They have a great deal in common when it comes to coal. The size of coal resources, the global rank of carbon dioxide emissions, and the geographic location of coal deposits with respect to population centers and water resources in these two countries are strikingly similar.

These powerhouse coal nations can work together to develop effective policy responses to coal trade, production, and consumption patterns. Coal strategies based on new knowledge about managing the coal value chain—from coal mining to preparation, transport, and end use—can improve efficiency, reduce the environmental and carbon footprint of coal, and address safety in the face of increasing global coal utilization and trade. It will also be important to gain a better understanding of and improve mining practices, regulatory oversight, and operations. Through cooperation, the United States and China can adopt new governance structures to provide oversight for global coal markets. They can do so by updating and establishing regulations, standards, and fiscal measures and by gathering information to manage carbon emissions from major coal export and import nations.

Common Carbon Conditions from Coal

As Map 1 shows, China and the United States are the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters. China has had the dubious distinction of being number one since 2006, when it overtook the United States. In 2009, the combined carbon dioxide emissions (the principal greenhouse gas) of these two nations alone accounted for 42 percent of the world’s total.1 

Coal is a major source of carbon emissions in both China and the United States. In 2009, their combined coal-related emissions accounted for 60 percent of carbon dioxide emitted from coal use worldwide and 26 percent of overall global carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, in 2009 China’s absolute carbon dioxide emissions from coal alone (5751 million metric tons) were 10 percent greater than total U.S. emissions (5195 million metric tons).2 And, the United States—the nation with the world’s largest coal reserves—is ranked second only to China in carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion.


Map 1: 2009 World CO2 Emissions from Coal

The extent and manner of future U.S. and Chinese coal production, consumption, and trade patterns will have a significant impact on global carbon dioxide emission trajectories. The two countries’ shared responsibility for these emissions, stemming from their heavy reliance on carbon-intensive coal, underscores the need for bilateral collaboration on energy and climate solutions. There are a number of specific areas in which cooperation is clearly possible, including robust data collection throughout the coal value chain, mutual efforts to strengthen carbon emission regulations, and economy-wide carbon pricing for coal and other fossil fuels.

Leaders in Global Hard Coal Reserves

With a combined share of more than half the world’s coal reserves, the United States and China each control a significant amount of the world’s known 723 billion tons of hard coal reserves. Of these, 226 billion tons—more than 31 percent—are located in the United States, and Chinese hard coal reserves amount to some 180 billion tons, accounting for 25 percent of global total.  Map 2 illustrates the distribution of these reserves.


Map 2: U.S. and Chinese Known Coal Reserves


Reserves Are Far from Population Centers

With a population of 1.34 billion in 2011, China has four times the inhabitants of the United States (307 million). Despite this absolute difference, however, the population settlement patterns in relation to the location of major coal resources are similar in both countries. The majority of Chinese and Americans live in provinces and states along the coast, concentrating demand for energy and the need for coal in these regions. The largest coal reserves, on the other hand, are found inland. This distribution pattern is depicted in Map 3.


Map 3: U.S. and Chinese Coal Reserves and Population Distribution

China’s eastern coastal provinces are home to 60 percent of Chinese, but hold only 7 percent of proven coal reserves.4 Similarly, 53 percent of Americans live within 50 miles of the coast, while 90 percent of coal reserves are located in just ten inland states, of which only Texas has direct access to the coast.5 Located in rural, often difficult to access parts of these two countries, coal resources are distant from major industrial and urban centers where coal is needed for industrial use and power generation.

The distance between coal reserve locations and population centers creates similar challenges for China and the United States with regards to coal transportation and storage. The United States and China occupy similarly large territories—9.8 and 9.6 million square kilometers, respectively—and with coal located inland and far from population centers, coal must be transported over long distances via railways, roads, or waterways (both inland river and coastal marine transport). Long travel distances require greater energy inputs that contribute to the nations’ transport-related carbon dioxide emissions.

The Challenge of Scarce Water Resources

Coal reserves in China and the United States are generally located in predominantly arid and semi-arid regions as shown in Map 4. In China, the province of Shaanxi and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia alone hold one-half of the country’s proven coal reserves.6 Yet, these two regions have less than 2 percent of the country’s water resources.7 


Map 4: U.S. and Chinese Coal Reserves and Water Resources


In the United States, the majority of coal reserves are located in the predominantly semi-arid states of the Western Coal Fields (Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming) and the more temperate state of Illinois. In 2010, Wyoming alone produced 40 percent of total U.S. coal output.8 Yet, with an annual average of only 12.9 inches of precipitation, Wyoming has very limited water resources.9 Of all the U.S. states, only Nevada and Utah receive less rainfall.

Depending on prevailing conditions and methods used, coal mining requires as much as 150 gallons of water per ton of coal produced. Water is needed for coal cutting and drilling, dust control, and coal washing and hauling.10 In water-scarce regions, coal mines have to compete with agriculture, other industries, and households for the use of limited water resources.

In addition, the water quality of watersheds near coal resources is at high risk of being polluted due to acid mine drainage—the “formation and movement of highly acidic water rich in heavy metals,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.11 This highly toxic water can have harmful effects on humans, animals, and plants if it is mixed with ground or surface water.12 The shared challenge presented by the lack of water resources in coal mining regions is thus of great importance in both the United States and China.

Possibilities for Cooperation

Together, the United States and China will impact global energy and climate outcomes more than any other two nations on earth. The situation is urgent, with climate models concluding that immediate and significant action is required to protect the earth’s climate. Coal consumption in the United States and China are prime targets for such action.

When it comes to coal, the path forward is not zero-sum. In-depth policy assessments will be required to determine how to best balance short- and long-term national interests with the abundance of coal reserves while safeguarding the climate. China and the United States—as well as the rest of the world—will benefit from addressing their coal-driven climate challenges jointly, through competitive collaboration in the areas of clean energy technology, demand-side management, and low-carbon energy policy. It will take a paradigm shift to manage the use of coal given the large U.S. and Chinese supplies.

Adopting and implementing effective policy tools is a good place to start. Such policy responses must be premised on new knowledge and assessment of coal trade, production, and consumption patterns. New, up-to-date information is needed to evaluate the global environmental integrity of coal utilization. This involves a bilateral effort to clean both countries’ coal value chains.

Expanding efforts under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC) may be an avenue forward.13 In addition to carbon capture and storage, CERC should investigate the coal value chain, pumping sufficient funds into continued bilateral research to help bolster science and technology collaboration aimed at managing coal. In order to be successful, however, this will require policy coordination as well as technical partnerships.

Policy intervention can include actions similar to those recently taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including toxic air standards, coal ash reduction, water quality protection, and carbon emission limits. Ultimately, however, the best way for the United States and China to manage potential climate impacts from the world’s largest coal reserves is to adopt a robust carbon-pricing policy.

Given the climate-forcing potential of Chinese and U.S. coal reserves, bilateral cooperation, based on the clear understanding of what these two nations have in common, is crucial to achieving future global greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.



From inception to delivery, mapping Chinese and U.S. resource capacities (with the first phase focusing on coal) would not have happened without input from many talented individuals. Deborah Gordon worked with the students in Professor John Porter’s University of Virginia GIS II Mapping Class (Spring 2011). The Carnegie Endowment would like to thank the following students for their dedication and expertise creating initial maps for this project: Amy McCormack, B.A. mathematics, 2011; Daniel Mehler, B.A. computer science and math, 2011; John Nay, B.A. philosophy/environmental thought and practice, 2012; and Dianjun Eric Ren, Ph.D. environmental engineering. We would also like to thank Brantly Womack, distinguished politics professor at the University of Virginia and honorary professor at Jilin University (Changchun) and at the East China Normal University (Shanghai), who helped incubate this effort with Deborah Gordon as it was just getting off the ground.

1International Energy Agency, CO2 Emissions from Fossil Combustion, 2011 Edition (Paris: IEA Publications, 2011), Calculations based on data from table: “CO2 emissions: Sectoral Approach – Coal/Peat” pp. 46¬–48. Accessed May 9, 2012.
2 Ibid. Calculations based on data from tables “CO2 emissions: Sectoral approach” and “CO2 emissions: Sectoral Approach – Coal/Peat” pp. 46-51. Accessed May 9, 2012.   
Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, Reserves, Resources and Availability of Energy Resources 2010, Annual Report (Hannover, Germany: Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, 2010): 23–24, Accessed May 9, 2012.
4 Adam Moser, “Asian Nations Must Work Together to Fight Rising Sea Levels,” Asia Society, July 12, 2011, Accessed April 25, 2012; and National Bureau of Statistics, China Statistical Yearbook 2011 (Beijing: China Statistics Press). Calculations based in data in table 12.11: “Ensured Reserves of Major Energy and Ferrous Metals by Region (2010).” Accessed April 25, 2012.
5 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Over half of the American Population lives within 50 miles of the coast,” Accessed May 6, 2012; and
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report, Web, “Coal Demonstrated Reserve Base, January 1, 2010,” Accessed May 9, 2012.
National Bureau of Statistics, China Statistical Yearbook 2011 (Beijing: China Statistics Press),  Calculations based on data in table 12.11: “Ensured Reserves of Major Energy and Ferrous Metals by Region (2010).” Accessed May 6, 2012.
7 Ibid. Calculations based in data in table 12-17: “Water Resources (2010).”
8 U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Coal Report, Web,  “Coal Production and Number of Mines by State and Mine Type, 2010,2009,” Accessed April 25, 2012.
9 “Average Annual Precipitation by State,” Current Results, accessed May 6, 2012, Accessed May 6, 2012.
10 Melissa Chan et al., Emerging Issues for Fossil Energy and Water (U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory, June 2006): 11, Accessed May 8, 2012.
11 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Acid Mine Drainage,” accessed May 6, 2012, Accessed May 6, 2012.
12 Ibid.
13 U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), “Joint Work Plan for Research,” 2009, Accessed May 6, 2012.