Emissions Renewables

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.

At the same time, because global warming has emerged as the central environmental issue of our era, climate concerns will inevitably impact how much coal we continue to burn and how we burn it-whether these concerns come to be expressed through caps on emissions, carbon taxes, cancellation of orders for new coal-fired power plants, or the promotion of new carbon sequestration technologies. In any case, the coal industry will be-indeed, already is being-forced to change.

These two trends are surely destined to interact, and the uncertain result will shape climate and energy policy in the years to come.

I thoroughly recommend you read the whole essay, available here. It is actually a chapter of an upcoming book by Heinberg called ‘BLACKOUT: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis’.

My feeling on all of this is still very much one of hope, not despair. We just urgently need to get our collective act together. If we unleash the inspirational human ingenuity that took us to the moon, decoded the genome and has kept the computer industry tracking against Moore’s Law (i.e., a doubling of processing power every 2 years) for more than 40 years, then we have a great chance of solving humanity’s accumulated environmental problems. But it will take a sustained burst of collective creative effort, supported by the right incentives and policy levers, especially early on in the ‘breakout’ period.

Every day, global warming foot dragging minimalists are confronted with ever more detailed evidence the planet is heating up and that this is having serious, real-world consequences. It has profound implications for everything from storm intensity to rainfall patterns to sea levels. Coupled with the likelihood we’ve reached the peak of global oil supplies, this underscores the need for transformative change. Harnessing creative brainpower is the answer. Arresting global warming need not drag us backward. Instead, it could lay the collective groundwork for a new “Knowledge Revolution” that could be the springboard of an entire new era of global wealth creation and a leap to new levels of development for human civilisation. Given that we are renters, not owners, of planet Earth, this is a ‘smart tenant’ program, for all generations and all species.

Time to focus!

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

5 replies on “How long will Old King Coal reign? Part II”

Just a nitpick – I always thought peak oil was when maximum world oil production was reached rather than when half was left.

I do agree that carbon capture technology for coal plants is probably a waste of money. Although declining coal supplies could be part of the reason, I am more likely to think it is due to the probably high capital cost of CO2 capture equipment, the time it will take to develop it and the large amount of energy that will have to be spent to capture, compress and sequester CO2. It seems certain to be uneconomical compared to the low cost of energy efficiency measures and the decreasing costs of wind energy, load following solar thermal and PV solar.


AR4 WG3 Chapter 4, Figure 4.26 (p.291) shows a scenario in which coal-based energy reserves as of 2004 were 100,000 exajoules, and in the next 25 years, just 1,700 exajoules get used. If those figures are remotely correct, then coal is not going to run out for a very long time.


Even if we don’t end up using CCS technology on coal-fired power stations, we may well need carbon storage technology to dispose of carbon captured from the air.

So I don’t think it’s entirely wasted, even if coal supplies are limited (which I remain unconvinced about…)


There’s surely enough coal to feed serious increases in CO2 emissions. When commentators talk about Australia’s resource boom they are mostly talking about coal. We are getting 70 new coal mines and new much expanded export infrastructure, the latter because that’s what’s been holding the coal industry back! I understand Prime Minister Rudd is delivering a message of concern about climate change and the need for CO2 capture and storage to the UN. I can only think that the latter is code for we are going to keep mining and selling and using coal.

Australia is not a minor player in global warming. Not on a nation basis and definitely not on a per capita basis. With Australian’s counted responsible for the emissions from exported coal we are right up there with the US and China. Per capita we would have to be the biggest contributors to climate change in the world.

We need to be honest about our place in this. I also think we probably need to accept that the coal industry will only truly go into serious decline when clean renewables are the low cost logical choice – not just on a par with (currently) high priced coal but cheaper and better than coal at any price. Currently mining companies are flush with funds and, contributing heavily to gov’t revenues through royalties as they do, are beyond having mere influence. I don’t expect any policies that really inhibit coal exports from our current gov’t.


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