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Peak coal in China

On November 17 the Wall Street Journal published an article discussing China and “Peak Coal” (China’s Coal Crisis):

“The idea of peak oil—the point at which global production reaches its maximum—has fixated the energy industry for years. Now, China is grappling with a new worry: peak coal. State-run media reported that Beijing is considering capping domestic coal output in the 2011-2015 period, partly because officials worry miners are running down reserves too quickly to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding economy.”

The day before the Swedish TV-program “Vetenskapens värld” [“The World of Science” – in Swedish] also discussed “Peak Coal” and Richard Heinberg was presented as the guru in that field. Therefore, I would like to discuss Uppsala University’s research on “Peak Coal”.

In the autumn of 2006 I submitted a grant application to Sweden’s National Energy Authority in which I sought partial funding for a project in which we would study future coal production. In his 2003 Master thesis Anders Sivertsson had shown that emissions of carbon dioxide from future oil and natural gas use could not support the emission levels assumed by the IPCC in its emissions scenarios (look at a grath with the results). The response from the IPCC was that our finding was unimportant since there is so much coal available (read in New Scientist). One motive behind my grant application was to study whether coal really could contribute as much carbon dioxide as assumed by the IPCC in its emissions scenarios. The grant application was approved in December 2006 and, in January 2007, I was able to appoint Mikael Höök as a Ph.D. candidate.

During the autumn we had made contact with our ASPO friends in Germany Werner Zittel and Järg Schindler who had also studied global coal production. We decided to collaborate and, in 2008 we submitted an article to Energy Policy for possible peer-review. At approximately the same time Richard Heinberg asked if he could get a copy of the article and he received it. With this article as an important reference he began to write a book on Peak Coal. The article we submitted to Energy Policy was quite extensive and, in the end, they determined that they were not the correct journal to handle it. When Richard Heinberg heard that the article would not be published as originally intended he was puzzled and wondered whether we could publish it in some other way. To assist him we make it available on ASPO’s website:

A supply-driven forecast for the future global coal production
Mikael Höök(a), Werner Zittel(b), Jörg Schindler(b), Kjell Aleklett(a)
(a) Uppsala University, Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group, Department of physics and astronomy, Box 535, SE-751 21, Lägerhyddsvägen 1, Sweden,
(b) Ludwig Bölkow Systemtechnik GmbH, Daimlerstrasse 15, 85521 Ottobrunn Germany
(This study was originally submitted to Energy Policy, but now it has been broken up into shorter, more specialized parts and aimed for publication in new forms.)

We have now published the article on global coal production in the journal ”Fuel”:
Global coal production outlooks based on a logistic model

This is the text about China from our 2008 paper:

Conclusions concerning Chinese coal production:

Coal is very vital to China and decreasing exports, together with increasing import clearly show that they have a supply problem. But whether this is due to resource problems, production problems or infrastructure bottlenecks is hard to say yet. A more comprehensive study of the Chinese coal assets needs to be done.

The forecast estimates that Chinese coal production will reach a peak in 2020, perhaps even earlier if the reserves are backdated to 1992, when the last actual update took place, and corrected for cumulative production. So China might be very close to its maximum coal production unless the reserves are larger than reported or a significant amount of resources can be transformed into produced volumes in the near future. Unless something dramatic happens to the Chinese reserves the future production will very soon end up under reserve constraints.

Clearly there are problems with the Chinese coal market and future production but this needs to be investigated more in detail than is done here.

Figure 12: Coal production forecast for China in two cases. The first is based on the reported reserves and the other one backdates the reserves to the last actual update in 1992. In the most optimistic case the production will reach slightly above 3000 Mt in 2020 and continue to increase for a decade before the decline sets in. The other case will result in a maximum production of around 2500 Mt by 2020. Both cases will have rapid decline in the future.

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