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 — 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 2ºC.” 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