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Coal in China

China is the world's foremost coal producer and consumer, surpassing the United States by a factor of two on both scores and accounting for 40 percent of total world production. Moreover, its coal consumption has been rising rapidly, at a rate of up to ten percent per year (which translates to a doubling of demand every 7 years). While China is a significant producer of oil and natural gas, coal dominates the nation's fossil-fuel reserve base. About 70 percent of China's total energy is derived from coal, and about 80 percent of its electricity. The country has recently become the world's foremost greenhouse gas emitter due to its growing, coal-fed energy appetite.

This nation's coal-mining history is probably the world's longest, dating back up to two millennia—though modern mining methods were not introduced until the late 19th Century by European, and later by Japanese companies.

... China's coal consumption in 2000 was 30 times its volume a half-century earlier, at the time of the establishment of the People's Republic. And just since 2000, consumption has more than doubled.

... In short, China has encouraged rapid export-led economic growth as a way of putting off dealing with its internal political and social problems. Economic growth requires energy, and China's energy comes overwhelmingly from coal. The nation's short-term survival strategy thus centers on producing enormous quantities of coal today, and far more in the future.

However, there are signs that China's domestic coal production growth may not be able to keep up with rising demand for much longer.

... Demand for coal in China is growing so quickly that even if the high reserves estimate from the Chinese government of 186.6 billion tons proves to be accurate (as opposed to EWG's much lower estimate of 96 billion tons), this may shift the date of peak production by only about 5 to 17 years—from the years 2015-2020 (EWG) to 2025-2032 (Tao and Li). This further calls into question the BRG conclusion that "there will be no bottleneck in [China's] coal supplies until 2100," as a delay of the peak to that extent—by more than 65 years beyond the Tao and Li forecast range—would require a conversion of resources to reserves on a truly monumental scale. Such a conversion is impossible to justify by precedent, and so BRG's conclusion can only be considered realistic if China's coal demand is assumed to level off soon and perhaps fall in coming decades—in which case a production peak will have occurred in effect.

But such demand reduction is currently difficult to envision. China's economy has been, is, and will continue to be coal-powered—as long as sufficient supplies are available—since few options exist to substantially reduce its coal dependency.

... China's furious pace of economic growth, which is often touted as a sign of success, may turn out to be a fatal liability. Simply put, the nation appears to have no Plan B. No fossil fuel other than coal will be able to provide sufficient energy to sustain current economic growth rates in the years ahead, and non-fossil sources will require unprecedented and perhaps unachievable levels of investment just to make up for declines in coal production — never mind providing enough to fuel continued annual energy growth of seven to ten percent per year.

If and when China ceases to have enough new energy to support continued economic growth, there are likely to be unpleasant consequences for the nation's stability. If such consequences are to be averted, the country's leadership must find ways to rein in economic growth while reducing internal social and political tensions, meanwhile investing enormous sums in non-fossil energy sources. A serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would entail an identical prescription. It is a tall order by any standard, but serious contemplation of the alternative—which, in the worst instance, could amount to social, economic, and environmental collapse—should be bracing enough to motivate heroic efforts.

Editorial Notes: For the rest of this long article, see the original at Global Public Aedia. -BA

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