Coal’s Terrible Forecast

There are many unfortunate outcomes to Peak Oil. One of the more serious is the world’s transition back to coal. Expensive BTU from crude oil has influenced the energy adoption pathway of the Developing World for ten years now, pushing the five billion people in the Non-OECD towards coal. My work has documented this shift for some time. But, I have paid less attention here at to the effect this paradigmatic change will have on our climate.

In this week’s release of the EIA’s International Energy Outlook, I found the following graph, projecting carbon emissions out to 2035. The EIA is correct to note the surge in emissions from coal. | see: World Energy Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Fuel 1990-2035 in billion MT.

While I generally applaud the EIA for recognizing, in the past few years, the tipping of world energy consumption back to coal I find incongruity in the agency’s other coal forecast: coal’s future contribution to primary world energy consumption. Improbably, EIA holds coal’s contribution steady at the current level of 29% for the next ten, and also the next twenty-five years. | see: Coal Share of World Energy Consumption (by Sector and Total) in Percent.

The flaw in this forecast? It ignores the tremendous growth in market share that coal has already achieved in the past decade. From 1998 to 2008, coal’s share of global primary energy consumption soared from over 25% to over 29%. Yes, at the world scale, that is a huge change. That the EIA would hold coal’s contribution level is a very poor forecast, given that global oil production has been held below a ceiling for six years now—and—that the Developing World has raced forward in its coal adoption.

Coal’s terrible forecast—and I will repeat myself here—is made possible by the fact it’s a cheap and versatile BTU for the billions of people emerging from very low income levels in the developing world. Worse, one has to wonder what the EIA’s emissions forecast would show, were the agency to meaningfully raise coal’s contribution to a more probable target. I see coal’s share rising steadily over the next decade to at least 35% of global energy use, before any pushback comes either from clean energy sources or from constraints on coal supply.


  • We have also been looking at some of the recent data from EIA.
    Looking at the oil price scenarios provided used by the EIA, the increase in coal emissions globally in the high oil price scenario relative to reference in 2035 is about 3.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – at almost 19 million metric tons in 2035 in aggregate terms.  The reduction in liquid fuel emissions over the same period in the high oil price scenario relative to reference is only about 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.  Obviously, these annual carbon dioxide emissions are ‘flows’ whereas one also has to consider implications for atmospheric carbon ‘stocks’.
    In 2035 the world increase in coal consumption is 40 quadrillion metric tons that year.  I make coal share of energy consumption by fuel to be about 27% in the reference scenario in 2035, and under the high oil price to be just under 30%.
    Much of the increase in consumption in both reference and high oil price scenarios of coal are attributable to China.  Common sense, and bottom-up analysis, would suggest that one might be more optimistic than to suggest that this trajectory will become a reality.

  • Anecdotally, we can see this occuring as well. For example, Mozambique as well as other African countries have huge resources of coal that they are just now developing in large quantities. The race is on to supply China and India with these resources, as well as other African countries who are eager(and now have the wherewithal) to expand their own economies with cheap reliable coal. As Africa comes online we are going to see world consumption ramp up quickly.

  • Anonymous

    i do apreciate your opinion and work, gregor……and expect to start reading regularly…..while the world has been getting warmer since ’90…from ’55 to ’90 it got colder…i have a time magizine with “the coming ice age” on the cover–1970………hard to believe the EPA’s carbon position seeing how man’s contribution is now .5%…tho up fro .3%

    burning anything is not good however.  there are just tooo many of us.

    ultimately its ‘save the planet-kill yourself’