Peak Coal in 2030, or 2020

According to ‘The End of Cheap Coal’ in last weeks edition of Nature, outdated reserve estimates and economic forces will lead to a peak in coal production within two decades. Ambitious geopolitics are still left out of that equation, which means we could be right on track of meeting the new IEA 450 Scenario that states we need to peak coal just 10 years sooner.

We will soon witness the end of cheap coal, say Richard Heinberg and David Fridley of the Post-Carbon Institute in their Nature publication. ‘Coal does not run out, but using it becomes increasingly expensive.’

Reserve estimates are inaccurate and outdated. Even if coal reserves prove abundant, this will not allow for the current low prices to remain even over the next couple of years. The main reason is not international emission targets, it’s the increased international coal trade and the reliance of countries on both import and export of coal – both of which drive prices.

Coal estimates would also be exaggerated. The low hanging fruit is quickly being picked and many reserve estimates are outdated. The US, home to 25 percent of global coal reserves, has not presented an official update since 1974. Over the last 5 years Germany and South Africa lowered their estimates by 25 percent. China, the world’s biggest producer, can’t keep up with its own demand and will soon be importing coal, the authors claim.

They conclude that “energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future.” This means current coal investments, as part of national energy strategies, will not pay out.

The news fits nicely in the new IEA World Energy Outlook that names a peak in coal consumption before the year 2020 as one of the essential requirements to reach the official UN 2C climate target. According to IPCC AR4 a 50 percent change remains to reach this target if the world manages to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases at no more than 450 ppm CO2 equivalents.

We’ve been hearing more sobering news lately on fossil fuel reserves. The fabled Alaska North Slope can be left to the caribou, a new USGS investigation showed. The National Petroleum Reserve contains 91.5 percent less oil than investors had so far been told.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm |

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