Peak Coal is already here or likely by 2020 — if true — IPCC 100 year projections too high?

Oil Limits and Climate Change – How They Fit Together

April 11, 2014.  Gail Tverberg. Our Finite World

Tverberg shows why fossil fuel use (and thus anthropogenic carbon emissions) will be at a little less than 40% of 2010 levels in 2030 — far lower than the best case IPCC projections RCP 2.6 scenario. This is because fossil fuels will be declining exponentially soon, and not just geologically, but for economic and political reasons as well.

November 2013.  Peak Coal in America.  This article makes the case we’ve got only 20 years of coal left, not 200 years.

Paige, S. Oct 29, 2013. Peak Oil May Keep Catastrophic Climate Change in Check. Scientists suggest that the highest possible pollution rates are unlikely. Scientific American.

2013 Geological Society of America. Rutledge, D. Projections for Ultimate Coal production from production histories through 2012. Engineering and Applied Science, Cailfornia Institute of Technology

Rutledge shows evidence for the largest possible coal production leading to an RPC of 4.5, and lower than that if there are any societal disruptions like the fall of the Soviet Union.  But the IPCC is projecting an RPC of 8.5 because they optimistically assume there are no resource limitations and don’t have a realistic understanding of proven reserves.

Despite many government programs to encourage alternative energy sources, the fraction of the world’s primary energy that is provided by fossil fuels has not budged from 85% since 1990. This is because rising wind, solar and biofuels have been offset by the decline in the share of nuclear energy. During the time the Kyoto Agreement was in effect from 1997 to 2012, world coal production rose 66%.

It is now clear that estimates of coal production are too high.  In spite of a history of reserves over-estimation, RCP 8.5 (where RCP stands for representative concentration pathway) is the most commonly used for climate calculations which assumes  a multiple of the reserves will be available for production.

[Rutledge shows that a more realistic range of ultimate coal production is] 667-785 Gt, including the cumulative production through 2012 of 334 Gt. This compares with World Energy Council reserves plus cumulative production of 1,165 Gt.

Time estimates should be regarded as tentative because historical events like the collapse of the Soviet Union have changed the trends in the past. If the current trends continue, 90% of the coal would be produced by 2067.


2013 Geological Society of America. Will Realistic Fossil Fuel Burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?  Tans, Pieter, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth Systems Research Laboratory.

Future emissions scenarios in the international assessments of climate change are driven almost entirely by demographic and socio-economic factors, with potential resource limitations assumed to be overcome by technological innovation. This session calls those scenarios into question. We consider it more realistic to expect future emissions to remain near the low end of the range considered by the International Panel on Climate Change, with the lower emissions forced on us rather than by a deliberate policy choice. A low emissions scenario will not prevent human-caused climate change, but will prevent worse outcomes that we may be able to predict better after we have experienced the 21st century. The reasons are fundamental: 1. The longevity of the CO2 enhancement in the atmosphere and oceans is thousands of years. 2. CO2 removal strategies require much energy. 3. The impact of enhanced greenhouse gases on the Earth energy balance is known accurately.


Coal is overwhelmingly the worst of the fuels left, so it’s good news that some scientists believe we’re at or near peak coal.

Other high greenhouse gas emitting sources, such as methane hydrates, shale oil, and large-scale exploitation of the tar sands is unlikely to ever provide much if any fuel.  Since this is a liquid fuels crisis with 97% of our transportation dependent on oil, and all “alternative” energies are dependent on oil for their manufacturing, distribution, and maintenance, electric power generation is not a remedy to this situation.

Nor are biofuels a solution, because they use more fossil fuel energy to create them than they deliver (negative, or at best, break-even Energy Returned on Energy Invested), and do a tremendous amount of harm to the environment, comparable to burning coal. They also increase carbon dioxide. Indonesia had the 3rd highest CO2 emissions because their rainforests are being torn down to grow vast monoculture palm oil plantations, and the carbon dioxide released from the tropical peat soils puts them just behind China and the USA in carbon dioxide emissions.  Rain forests are being torn down all over the world to grow palm oil.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be climate change and rising oceans in the future, but because we’re more or less at peak oil, natural gas, and coal, the future extinction rate isn’t likely to reach the 90-95% Permian level extinction.  Though extinction loss is likely to be at least 20% of species from humans taking over most of the prime habitats on the planet to grow food, extract timber from (rain)forests, and the other 9 boundaries we’re crossing.

I believe that long before 2080 there will be enough social unrest, instability, and war from rapidly declining standards of living as oil, coal, and natural gas deplete exponentially, that much of the remaining fossil fuel resources are likely to remain in the ground.  If that’s true, the IPCC scenario will be lower than Rutledge’s estimate of 4.5.



The evidence for peak coal

Tad Patzek, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin wrote that under the 40 different U.S. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios, 36 of the 40 scenarios predicted future carbon production and CO2 emissions at today’s rate of coal production.  Credible forecasts of coal production, by contrast, predict a 50 percent reduction over the next 50 years.

“Most of the IPCC scenario writers accepted the common myth of 200–400 years of coal supply, and now their “eternal” (100 years plus) growth of carbon dioxide emissions in turn is a part of the commonly accepted social myth,” says Patzek.

“The IPCC carbon estimates, which are used by all major decision makers, are based on economic and policy considerations that appear to be unconstrained by geophysics,” says Patzek.  “The value of our approach is that it provides a reality check on the magnitude of carbon emissions.

Below are excerpts and references from this paper: Richard Heinberg and David Fridley. 18 November 2010. The end of cheap coal. Nature, vol 468 p 367-9.

New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future.

We believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.

A spate of recent studies (1–5) suggests that available, useful coal may be less abundant than has been assumed — indeed that the peak of world coal production may be only years away. One pessimistic study (1) concluded that global energy derived from coal could peak as early as 2011.

In terms of energy output, US coal production peaked in the late 1990s (volume continued to increase, but the coal was of lower energy content).

Resources are exaggerated

A lot of coal is so difficult to get at it will probably remain in the ground.  Much of China’s coal, over 90%, is from mines as much as 1,000 meters deep.   We strongly suspect that the current reserves figures are too optimistic.

One way to estimate future production is to look at past production trends. This method was pioneered by geophysicist King Hubbert. Applying Hubbert analysis to coal, Chinese academics Tao and Li (7) forecast that China’s production will peak and begin to decline long as early as 2025. A forecast (3) by the Energy Watch Group, used a lower reserves figure of 114.5 billion tonnes to forecast a peak of production in 2015, with a rapid production decline commencing in 2020. During and after the period when production peaks, resource quality will dwindle and mining costs will rise, pushing up coal prices.

Coal consumption is accelerating fast, notably in China. This renders meaningless reserves-lifetime figures calculated on the basis of flat demand. A 2009 report from China’s Energy Research Institute forecast that coal demand would rise by 700 million to 1 billion tonnes by 2020, reducing the reserves lifetime to about 33 years. If coal demand grows in step with projected Chinese economic growth, the reserves lifetime would drop to just 19 years (10).



1. Patzek T. W. and Croft, G., “A Global Coal Production Forecast with Multi-Hubbert Cycle Analysis,” Energy, doi:10.1016/, 35; pp 3109-3122, 2010.

2. Mohr, s. H. & Evans, G. M. Forecasting coal production until 2100. Fuel 88, 2059–2067 (2009).

3. Zittel, W. & schindler, J. March 2007. Coal: Resources and Future Production. Energy Watch Group, Paper no. 1/07 (2007);

4. Rutledge, D. Hubbert’s Peak, The Coal Question, and Climate Change (2007): available at

5. Höök, M., Zittel, W., schindler, J. & Aleklett, K. Global Coal production outlooks based on a logistic model. Fuel 89, 3546–3558 (2010).

6. 2010 Survey of Energy Resources (World energy Council, 2010); available at

7. Tao, Z. & li, M. What is the Limit of Chinese Coal Supplies: A STELLA model of Hubbert Peak.  Energy Pol. 35, 3145–3154 (2007).

8. Campbell, C. J. & Laherrère, J. H. the end of Cheap oil. Scientific American (March 1998).

9. Energy Information Administration. Annual Energy Outlook 1998 (Doe/eia, 1997).

10. 2050 China Energy and CO2 Emissions Report (in Chinese) (science Press, 2009).

11. Luppens, J. a. et al. Assessment of Coal Geology, Resources, and Reserves in the Gillette Coalfield, Powder River Basin, Wyoming. open-File report 2008-1202 (usGs, 2008).

12. Coal Reserves of the Matewan Quadrangle, Kentucky — A Coal Recoverability Study. us bureau of Mines Circular 9355 (USGS, 2003).

13. Strategic Analysis of the Global Status of Carbon Capture and Storage. (Global CCs institute, 2009).



Ward, K. October 13, 2012. Coal’s decline forewarned Minable seams running out, experts say. West Virginia Gazette.


This entry was posted in Climate Change, Climate Change, CO2 and Methane, Coal, Fossil Fuels, Global Warming, Runaway Greenhouse and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Peak Coal is already here or likely by 2020 — if true — IPCC 100 year projections too high?

  1. Dave Kimble says:

    A list of scientific papers and articles on Peak Coal can be found at