Peak coal – by 2011?

by | Sep 3, 2010

That’s the rather arresting finding of new research from the University of Texas, published in the journal Energy (which should be behind a paywall, but someone’s helpfully posted it here). The key message in the paper is this:

The global peak of coal production from existing coalfields is predicted to occur close to the year 2011 … It is unlikely that future mines will reverse the trend predicted in this BAU [Business As Usual] scenario.

Now if true, that obviously has rather far-reaching consequences for climate policy – and, indeed, for the most basic assumptions used by the IPCC, as the authors explain:

Based on economic and policy considerations that appear to be unconstrained by geophysics, the IPCC generated forty carbon production and emission scenarios. [Our research] provides a reality check on the magnitude of carbon emissions in a BAU scenario. The resulting base case is significantly below 36 of the 40 carbon emission scenarios from the IPCC … After 2011, the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037, and reaching 50% of the peak value in the year 2047.

Grist magazine’s David Roberts summarises the two key implications of this:

1. If coal is soon going to get harder to reach and more expensive, an enormous investment in carbon capture and storage may not make sense. Remember, building the infrastructure necessary to run our economy on renewables and efficiency will itself be an expensive, energy-intensive undertaking. If our fossil-fuel savings are running low, we urgently need to spend every penny of that energy wisely. If we waste a huge chunk of it on CCS only to find coal drying up, we’ll have that much less to put toward building post-fossil infrastructure.

2. If there’s much less coal than widely assumed, climate change may not be humanity’s biggest problem. Most of the more dire IPCC climate change scenarios assume endlessly rising energy demand and use, and thus endlessly rising CO2 emissions. But those models tend not to pay heed to the physical world. If some of the new research on coal reserves is accurate, it is mathematically impossible to emit as much as the high-end IPCC scenarios. There just won’t be enough fossil fuels.

I’m a bit suspicious of the methodology the researchers used to yield the 2011 peak date, and want to see some peer reviews of it by people who know more about solid fuels than me. But it’s interesting to see peak oil analysts broadening their argument to encompass power generation as well as liquid fuels for transport – an argument they’re applying to uranium for civil nuclear power as well as to coal, as for instance in this quote from an energy analyst in a recent edition of Energy Bulletin:

I feel the uranium market right now could be the world’s most unbalanced commodity market. . . . the planet, by means of the nuclear power industry, consumes approximately 172 million pounds of uranium per year, as well as the planet only produces about 92 million pounds of uranium per year. The supply deficit is produced up through above-ground inventories, which are becoming worked down pretty quickly…

Again, can’t vouch for the data sources. But interesting, and worth hunting around to see what other evidence is (or isn’t) out there.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Four Scenarios and a Future for Communities

Four Scenarios and a Future for Communities

This article is part of our Scenarios Week series, exploring and expanding on the Long Crisis Scenarios. You can find the other articles in the series on our Scenarios Week page. In this piece, Local Trust’s director of partnerships, James Goodman, looks at...

Scenarios Week on Global Dashboard

Scenarios Week on Global Dashboard

This article is part of our Scenarios Week series, exploring and expanding on the Long Crisis Scenarios. You can find the other articles in the series on our Scenarios Week page. Just over a week ago, we published our latest work as the Long Crisis Network: the...