There's A Lot Less Coal Out There Than We Think - But That's Not Civilization's End

open coal mine photo

photo: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo via flickr

TreeHugger has covered the uncomfortable and largely under-publicized topic of peak coal on a number of occasions, but David Roberts over at Grist just brought it up again--and it's a topic certainly worth revisiting as the future implications are great. I'll take the question out of Roberts' title to sum it up: There's much less (easily recoverable) coal than we think (and are told).The gist of it is that the conventional wisdom about coal spouted out around the US is that the nation has a 200 year supply available, sometimes touted as double that, seemingly in fits of smoky pollution-loving optimism.

But according to new analysis in the journal Energy,

The global peak of coal production from existing coalfields is predicted to occur close to the year 2011. After 2011 the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037, and reaching 50% of the peak value in the year 2047. It is unlikely that future mines will reverse the trend...

The emphasis is that quote is from Roberts and it's a really important thing to consider. Like with peak oil (or peak any resource) it's not that we run out of coal at that point, or even by 2050--only that past that point each unit of coal produced gets more difficult, more scarce, more expensive.

Roberts nails the implications of this (apart from the last line):

There's almost certainly enough coal left for us to do the atmosphere (and by extension, ourselves) serious damage. But the really epic crash may not be in the climate, it may be in human civilization, which is by now entirely dependent for its growth and complexity on relatively cheap, relatively abundant fossil fuels. The absence of extreme global warming will be of little comfort if we end up in a post-apocalyptic Mad Mex hellscape.

About that Mad Max hellscape:

While it's tempting to in our darkest moments to think that the opposite of modern profligate energy use and the current composition of what we call civilization is a world ruled by Tina Turner, powered by pig shit and enforced by MasterBlaster--which with less theatrics may be the case in certain places--assuming that is the only outcome of a post-peak energy world is a bit naive and unthoughtful. It's just not either modern energy use or Australian outback anarchy.

A more likely scenario is a mix of time-tested low-tech solutions combined with limited high-tech options.

Let's remember that the world existed pre-internet, pre-digital camera, pre-streaming video, pre-lots of things we take for granted and are integral to our lives (including a whole host of things necessary for distributing this piece).

It may be a serious transition--rough at times and in places--but it's not something that would happen overnight and is not something that can't be managed well. Even if what is called civilization is quite a bit different that today, a world without cheap energy doesn't necessarily equate to automatic lawless rule by warlords with big hair.

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Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome image: Chris Drumm via flickr.

More on Coal:
World Coal Reserves Could Be Much Smaller Than Previously Thought
It's Time For an Inconvenient Talk About Peak Fossil Fuels
Peak Coal Comes to Appalachia

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