How long will Old King Coal reign? Part II

As if ‘peak oil‘ – the point at which half of the available oil has been squeezed out of the surface rocks – weren’t enough, another freight train thundering towards us and picking up pace is ‘peak coal‘. It hasn’t gotten the attention yet of ‘peak oil’, but the implications just as huge. For instance, ‘Peak coal’ could make carbon capture and storage investments a disastrous waste of money.

We need a profound reassessment of how we do business on planet Earth. Every day, evidence accumulates that our global resource wallet is progressively emptying of cash and becoming filled with only over-extended credit cards. Resource bankruptcy looms, and it’s going to force change, whether we want it or not. With wisdom, we can sidestep the freight trains. With denial, profligacy, short-term thinking and delay, we’ll be stuck on the rails, with an inevitable and ugly collision due within as little as a few years or at most a few decades. The decision is ours.

One of the clearest thinkers on the peak energy and resource depletion issue, and a regular contributor to the excellent website Energy Bulletin, is Richard Heinberg. He has summed up the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change as well as any I’ve read in his latest piece: ‘Coal and Climate’. I quote the preamble:

Recent reports on global coal reserves, surveyed in previous chapters, generally point to the likelihood of supply limits appearing relatively soon-within the next two decades (a contrary view is represented solely by the BGR report [“Lignite and Hard Coal: Energy Suppliers for World Needs until the Year 2100 – An Outlook,” 2007]). According to this near-consensus, coal output in China, the world’s foremost producer, could begin to decline within just a few years.

Since coal is the most significant source of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, releasing about twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced as natural gas, the news that there may be much less coal available to be burned than commonly thought should be heartening to climate scientists and environmental activists, and to policy makers and citizens concerned about the fate of the planet. Reduced estimates of future coal supplies should be factored into climate models-which typically assume that there is enough coal available to permit continued expansion of usage well into the next century.

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