Fossil fuels: Trading in the wrong direction

3 Nov 2021

When the world needs less fossil fuels, we are trading them more than ever.

World trade in fossil fuels, quantities

(base year=2000)

Date: 3 Nov 2021

UNCTAD calculations, based on data from Our World in Data and the United Nations Comtrade Database


Despite increased awareness of the risks related to global climate change, the use of fossil fuels continues unabated. The addiction of the global economy to fossil fuels is reflected in the trade statistics showing that the trade in fossil fuels has increased substantially during the last 20 years.

Since 2000, the volume of global trade in coal, the most polluting among fossil fuels, has increased by more than two and a half times, surpassing even its main competitors: natural gas and petroleum. While the global trade of fossil fuels declined in 2020 with the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19, this decline is likely to be temporary, as was the case in the previous economic downturn of 2008. Preliminary data for 2021 already shows a return to historical trends.

Importantly, coal trade has increased more than the use of renewable sources of energy, an indication that coal has continued to play an important role in providing the energy for the growing global economy. Because of its abundance, ease of transport and relatively low cost, coal contributes to more than one-third of global electricity consumption. With the steady electrification of the world economy driven by e-mobility and data services, electricity needs look set to increase further, as will the use of fossil fuels for energy production, coal in particular.

It is becoming increasingly evident that without stronger multilateral commitments to reduce the use of  fossil fuels (such as phasing out subsidies, implementing effective carbon price mechanisms,  or facilitating transfer of technology and trade in green goods,  fossil fuels will continue to power the global economy. And to destroy the planet.