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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)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.


Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. His most recent book is "The Limits to Growth Revisited" (Springer 2011).

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