Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peak? What peak? King coal is coming back!

King Coal may be coming back to save us from peak oil, but condemning us to a worse fate in terms of global warming (image from the National Media Museum

Recently, Rembrandt Koppelaar has published on the Oil Drum a summary of the world's trends in energy production. The report tells us that the oil industry is struggling to maintain the present levels of production. It may not have peaked yet, but clearly it can't resume the past trends of increase. That's not surprising, it had been foreseen already in 1998 by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere (link). What's striking, instead, is the leap forward of coal. The world's total energy production is not peaking and that's because of the rapid growth of coal, as you can see here, from Koppelaar's report:

Coal seemed to have peaked in 1990, but it was an illusion. The growth of coal production during the first decade of the 21st century has been impressive; never seen before in history. So, King Coal is coming back and he may soon reclaim the title of ruler of the energy world that it had lost to crude oil in the 1960s.

We are not seeing anything like a tendency to peak for coal and that, unfortunately, is not good for climate. We can see that from the "other side" of the chemical reaction that sees fossil fuels transformed into carbon dioxide, CO2, whose concentration in the atmosphere is increasing faster in recent times. (the figure below is from "think progress," see also this previous post).

We cannot say that the burst of carbon dioxide that we are seeing is due to coal alone, but it corresponds well to the spike in coal production and it is surely related to it. The global climate situation seems to be rapidly going out of control and this rapid increase in CO2 concentrations doesn't bode well for the future. Bowing down our heads again to King Coal may turn out to be the worst choice we ever made in history.


  1. The USA has about 5000 EJ of recoverable coal reserves, but about 60,000 EJ of uranium and thorium (about 26,000 EJ of uranium already mined and stored).  That's the real future, and the decline in petroleum may be just the thing to re-start the replacement of carbon fuels by fission which was halted by politics in the 1970's.

  2. Coal use might be soaring but let's not forget the subsidy it enjoys from oil. All the machinery used to dig out and move coal runs on oil, to some extent, so a declining EROEI for oil also impacts coal extraction.

    Nevertheless, it's a sad fact that we seem to be doing our best to destabilise the climate with no regard for the future.

  3. Jason, does it? I always assumed coal mining was largely powered by electricity, and movement by rail is often (and if not easily can be) electrified? Electricity = coal.

    Am I right in thinking most of the last decade's rapid increase in coal extraction is from China? If so, whilst we're not yet seeing a tendency to peak for coal, given China's coal reserves (at least what we know of them), is a relatively near term peak inevitable? When China's coal peaks, the world peaks - and China simply doesn't have the reserves to continue this expansion for many more years.

  4. @Chris
    But China also now imports a lot of coal, for instance :
    or :

    And from last link :
    "Rail, truck and ocean transit are the crucial components in supplying Chinese coal within its own market. With much of domestic coal resources located in North-Central China (predominantly Shanxi, Shaanxi and Xinjiang provinces) and major industrial demand hubs located along the southeastern coast, transport costs currently make up more than half of delivered costs for domestic thermal coal in the southern provinces.

    Increasingly high transport costs, in concert with the increasing cost of sourcing typically low quality, underground coking and thermal coal from within the country pushed China from a net coal exporter into an importer in 2009. Despite vast distances of suppliers from Australia, Canada, Indonesia and the US, lower production costs sourced (typically) from surface miners have been able to supply Chinese customers at a lower cost."

    So I think Jason point is very true...

  5. Google "Peak Coal" and you will find that Coal will peak real soon too. Look at the recent studies by Energy Watch Group of Germany, National Academy of Science, University of Texas at Austin, Post Carbon Institute, and others. Moreover, the world is nearly at the tipping point of climate change.

  6. yvesT,
    Regarding China and importing coal, surely this can never be a big deal. China's coal consumption is huge compared to the global coal export market. Imported coal can't support China's coal consumption growth rate.

    Your 2nd link tells the story, China's 2010 coal imports were already 48% of global market volume yet only supply 5% of China's consumption.

    That China have recently turned to imported coal suggests to me that their peak production (and consumption) is close.

  7. Stephen, I hope you are right, but many people don't agree on the fact that peak coal is near. What worries me is that the growth of coal production shows no signs of abating - if we have to wait for the tipping point of climate change to stop coal, then we are cooked anyway

  8. Ugo, surely, China will eat us alive, but then, on per capita basis we are much better!

    So Desdemona Despair has more to say:

    China’s energy use rose at the fastest pace in four years in 2011 and efficiency improved, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

    Consumption climbed 7 percent to 3.48 billion metric tons of standard coal equivalent, a report on the bureau’s website showed today. That’s the fastest rate since 2007, when it was 7.8 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Consumption per unit of gross domestic product fell 2.01 percent from 2010, the bureau said, without elaborating.

    Damned Jevons paradox!!!


    1. Alex
      Chris has a point.
      Coal consumption growth?
      7% annual continuing means double in 10 years?
      Damned 'rule of 70'!!!

      I have been looking at the essential Energy Export Databrowser
      China is remarkably 19thC, coal-based, compared with the rapid post-WWII growth in the advanced industrial economies. That latter growth is now very much levelled-off of course.

      UK, Germany, and to a lesser extent France did not (could not) grow economically post-war on coal. Their use of coal declined markedly. Nuclear power was no 'game-changer', and increasingly these countries went over to oil and then NG. Declining coal and rapidly increasing petroleum consumption crossed over just before or around 1970. Italy only really got going in the Petroleum Age (very little coal).

      USA went to petroleum on a vast scale much earlier, though has continued expansion of coal use on a gradual upward incline since 1970 with only a very recent downturn.

      Japan had a vast expansion into oil in the 1960s, with only a modest upward gradient of coal use in the modern period.

      South Korea started later with a very steep rise in petroleum use. Coal and nuclear and NG also increased but at a less steep pace.

    2. Phil,

      I absolutely agree! I have seen the paper by Ted Patzek on (global) peak coal - possibly as soon as 2011...

      The problem I see is that when China will (soon) be unable to grow energy production/consumption (e.g. from coal) at the suicidal rate of 7 % p. a., what then?

      China is already at the start of bursting housing bubble - and social unrest rapidly spreads... what will happen, when the real economic output will ease/slow donw/level off/decline in the face of rapidly growing (and soon also ageing) population?

      What IS the solution?


    3. "What IS the solution?"

      Answer: Bust.

      The trouble with many of these systems is their huge size means that they have a kind of inertia. They cannot change to avoid the coming problems because ... argh ... I keep thinking in terms of physics. These economic systems are just like massive objects with massive momentum. They are not easily deflected. China has actually changed its path dramatically in the past so there is common knowledge that this is a 'can do' issue. But I'm not even sure a heroic five-year plan would stop this, even if you could muster support for such hardships.

      China needs +6% growth to maintain stability. How long can that be maintained? Not long I would say.

    4. Hi Alex and Peter
      Can Ugo help?
      We are all scientists I think, but are there any economic historians out there; or perhaps the modellers might help?

      We are all learning just now the meaning of "economic bubbles". China appears to be a classic. There are plenty of historical examples, even during periods when there was ample scope for continuing real industrial growth and trade. Over time, these ‘spurt and crash’ periods did not prevent eventual further ongoing industrial expansion. But in circumstances of impossible expectations, can we envisage longer term; say 10 or 20 years from now, seeing any kind of future equilibrium, and a functioning economic system in China, using perhaps, even approximately, the resources that China uses just now? What happens over that same period to the existing advanced industrial economies; USA, EU, Japan, South Korea?

      Recently banks and their leverage created absurdities such as Lehmans and the tragi-farce of the Iceland Banks disaster, amid widespread contagion. There is still a resulting and ongoing credit crunch in advanced economies and forced contraction of public services and welfare provision is seen as a remedy.
      In classic bubbles a lot of infrastructure and kit is often built in the wrong place and/or becomes unusable when component parts of the system no longer arrive or ‘business models’ do not fulfil expectations. When indeed they are no longer profitable, parts of the chain cannot be financed even when many of the services are still needed.

      Even when there is more rational change in the means of production, it is still hard or impossible to salvage whole regions and communities. There is an old song they still sing to children in this part of the world, NE England, that goes back to the fishing era; "When the boat comes in". Later on they built ships round here, big ones, lots of them, but no longer. It all happened rather quickly.

      Perhaps Albania provides an extreme example of a bubble (the Ponzi version) when the then existing absurdity was collapsing? Existing claims on the economy (“personal savings”) disappeared or morphed into a relatively few Swiss francs in the hands of even fewer rogues, and existing infrastructure became part of a scavenging economy. China is no Albania, but Ponzi and leverage mechanisms are real enough the whole world over.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)