From 1973 to 1986, world hard coal trade increased by about 90% and seaborne trade more than doubled to about 8% of total world production. By 1996, 12.9% of world coal production was traded, and 92% of total coal traded on the international market was transported in ships, either ocean-going or in smaller coastal vessels which transport coal around Northern Europe and the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas.
The role of the key exporters was established in the first half of the 1980s. The main impetus to growth of coal exports came initially from the US and Poland, but South Africa and Australia both expanded their market shares considerably during the 1980s. US exports fell under intense price pressure from other suppliers. While small in absolute terms, China and Colombia also expanded their exports during the 1980s. Canada also established itself as a major exporter, although losing market share in the latter part of the decade to South Africa, Colombia and China.
Major exporters other than the US and Poland have experienced steady growth during the development of the international market from 1960. For steam coal, this growth commenced from 1975. Total exports from 1960 have ended far in excess of the starting point. Although the market share held by the US has steadily eroded from about50% in 1970 to about 17% now; the US has continued to demonstrate the capacity to enter the export market to make up supply; such as resulting from industrial action in Poland and the UK during the 1980s, and recovering from domestic industrial action in 1978 and 1993.
Currently most coal trade is focused on the Asia Pacific basin to meet growing demand from emerging economies such as China and India, and the more developed economies of Japan, South Korean and Taiwan. In the southern regions of China imported coals can often be cheaper than domestically produced coal once logistic costs area taken into account.
From a low year in 2009, trade picked up in the first half of 2010, with the Asia Pacific growing more than the Atlantic region by 22% and 4% respectively. Exports from the Indonesian market grew by 26% over the review period.