The end of cheap coal?

As coal reserves are depleted, busy coal-train facilities, such as this one in Norfolk, Virginia, will become a thing of the past. C. DAVIDSON/CORBIS. Nature article: doi: 10.1038/nature08017

An article released in Nature today has challenged the commonly held view that the world has cheap and plentiful coal supplies that will fuel the world for decades to come.

Richard Heinberg and David Fridley argue that coal prices are likely to rapidly increase in the near future, due to a combination of rapid growth in the demand for coal, and recent findings which suggest useful coal reserves are less abundant than what has previously been assumed.

In China, proven recoverable reserves of coal (that is, those that are technically and economically feasible to mine) have been estimated at a total 187 billion tonnes, which is expected to last another 62 years – assuming the rate of consumption of coal remains at 2009 levels.

But this estimate is likely to be too optimistic, since consumption of coal in China is accelerating rapidly. Applying the same techniques used to estimate the future expected peak production of oil , researchers have found that coal production in China could peak as early as 2025.

There are of course coal supplies to be found elsewhere (including Australia), but at current rates of import growth, China alone could absorb all current Asia-Pacific exports with just three years – ultimately increasing competition (particularly with other rapidly developing nations such as India) and driving up the cost of coal.

What does this mean for climate change? Well, apart from the fact that we simply can’t afford to burn all of the Earth’s available fossil fuels if we want to maintain a stable climate, Heinberg and Fridley suggest that coal supply limits also have implications for the development of clean-coal technology. If coal prices do increase as recent studies suggest, then it makes little economic sense to continue building new coal plants β€” whether they be conventional or retrofitted with CCS technology (which still hasn’t been proven on a commerical scale).

Seems like it may be time to invest heavily in energy efficiency and alternative energy.


Listen to Richard Heinberg on ABC radio from this morning.

Youtube: Richard Heinberg: The Inconvenient Truth on Clean Coal



Heinberg, R. and D. Fridley (2010). “The end of cheap coal.” Nature 468(7322): 367-369. doi: 10.1038/468367a

Meinshausen, M., N. Meinshausen, et al. (2009). “Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2ΒΊC.” Nature 458(7242): 1158-1162. doi: 10.1038/nature08017

Tao, Z. and M. Li (2007). “What is the limit of Chinese coal supplies–A STELLA model of Hubbert Peak.” Energy Policy 35(6): 3145-3154. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2006.11.011

10 thoughts on “The end of cheap coal?

  1. Ultimately of course Megan we will run out of all our easy resources. The challenge will be to find an alternate sources that will not result in wholesale destruction of the remainder of the planet. Applying a Sci Fi perspective ultimately it seems that this will entail exploiting resources elsewhere in the solar system. The challenge will be to develop technologies that will enable this before the easy energy runs out. This may mean burning the candle faster in the short term to build the momentum to “reach for the stars” before the candle burns out altogether leaving us without the capacity to get off the ground. Once aloft of course there is a virtually endless supply of resources.

    (Must be something to do with growing up with Star Trek.)

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  3. Then there’s the typical argument that I hear all the time that coal can be converted to assist petrol supply post-peak oil. It irritates me no end, because this accelerating overproduction will no doubt bring peak production to an earlier date and, regardless of increasing cost, such consumer based societies are likely to slide down the post-peak slope far quicker than they climbed to peak – a world run on fossil fuel simply will not exist by 2100 and the sooner we address this, the easier transition to other technology will be (ie. it takes energy to change and our major supply of energy is still, for the short term, relatively cheap).

    Then there’s the excellent argument provided by Vaclav Smil, that coal is in reality too important for steel production to be used as a fuel anyway [ ]. Put simply, without coal and our current wasteful attitude of steel (how often do we see train cars and beams left out to rust?) means that the life of our great-grand children will be radically different to that we know and we’re far too complacent about this changing world (both environmentally and resource availability).

    Nice post Megan! We certainly need to make this point as loud as possible. πŸ™‚

  4. @Marc – I don’t make a habit of applying a sci-fi perspective to sustainability issues, so can’t help but feel like we should probably focus on finding a solution closer to home (that preferably doesn’t involve digging ever deeper holes). WALL-E provides an elegant summary of what likelihood there is of humans prospering in space.

    @Tim – thanks for the link – very interesting! We can add steel production to the list of reasons (economic, climate, health…)why burning coal is a dumb idea.

  5. WALL E – lol. I don’t know, the people seemed to be happy little gluttonous consumers. I always had a problem with two loop holes – firstly, they couldn’t exist 700 yrs in space if they dump so much material into space (using those massive WALL E robots) – like a good ecosystem, recycling of material would be paramount; secondly, those people wouldn’t have been able to walk off of the ship – not with the lack of muscular development and excessive weight… But that’s Disney for you I guess (“Tim! It’s just a cartoon!” – believe it or not, I’m terrible to watch a movie with!) πŸ˜‰

    Valcav has some really excellent articles and book – well worth a read of his work.

  6. If the price of coal goes up steeply the likelihood new plants will include sequestration will surely go down; the needs for keeping energy costs down (for the sake of keeping economies ticking along) having precedence over keeping emissions down. I suspect the incentives will favour finding ways to reduce the costs of exploiting those ‘less economic’ coal reserves rather than result in a shift away from coal. Unless there are serious regulatory or other interventions and those don’t look very likely. Sorry for the pessimism – although I do keep hoping the costs of alternatives will indeed come down enough to be a game changer.

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