I have a dim recollection that somewhere someone has done a set of graphs of the rapidly contracting time horizons of scientists’ and economists’ predictions of environmental and economic problems arising from climate change, biodiversity reduction, risk to food supply and energy resource inaccessibility and the like.
If these graphs don’t exist, they should. (I’m talking about graphing contracting time horizons of reputable predictions here).
One potentially graphable set of predictions concern the economically useful future of coal.
The Victorian Government was up until recently citing 300 years worth of coal resources in the Latrobe valley.
ABARE uses the 2008 rate of production as a constant to make the estimate, and they also say in the following dot point that “there is 66.6 Gt of recoverable Inferred Resources of black coal, which require further exploration to delineate their possible extent and determine their economic status.”
That is, the ease and cost of extraction of undiscovered reserves is unknown, but there might be more economically feasible reserves than we think.
Shaun Carmody who blogs as Stubborn Mule, took issue with ABARE’s use of a 2008 fixed rate of production in their calculations.
“So, where does the 90 year figure come from? According to the ABARE report, Economic Demonstrated Resources are 39.2 giga-tonnes (Gt). Add to this another 8.3 Gt of “Sub-economic Demonstrated Resources”, or SDR, (i.e. reserves that are really hard to get) gives an estimate total of 47.5 Gt for Australia’s coal reserves. Now 90 × 490 Mt (the 2008 production rate) gives 44.1 Gt, which is somewhere between EDR and the combined total of EDR and SDR. Presumably the ABARE authors are allowing for the possibility that over time it will become economically feasible to mine some of the coal that is currently classified as sub-economic.
But there is no way that 2008 production rates will be kept steady for the next 90 years. Apart from anything else, there are plenty of stakeholders in the coal industry doing their best right now to see their export business grow.
To come up with a better estimate of how long the coal might last, rather than assuming zero production growth, I will assume a constant growth rate. While the annual growth rate from 1961 to 2008 averaged 5% per annum, growth has been a little slower more recently. The last 5 years have seen growth average only 3.1% (presumably the global financial crisis did not help). Working with the ABARE estimate that viable coal reserves are 90 times 2008 production levels and assuming 3.1% annual growth in production, the reserves will in fact only last for 43 years! “
However according to Sourcewatch, Australia increased its estimates of recoverable coal reserves from 29 Mt of hard coal in 1987 to 38.6 Mt in 2005. ABARE’s 2010 estimate of 39.2 giga-tonnes is an increase on that, so maybe recoverable coal resources are going up.
But on the side of the trend of environment and resource predictions to predict we will run out of everything but predictions sooner than we think, on this morning’s ABC Radio National “Breakfast” Fran Kelly interviewed Richard Heinberg, the author of a paper on the subject of peak coal “The end of cheap coal”, published in Nature 17 Nov 2010 (with David Fridley)
This article does not mention Australia specifically, but it does mention the poor quality of estimates of coal reserves worldwide.
“China’s reserves were last surveyed in the early 2000s, and the US reserves in the 1970s”
And Heinberg argues that on the basis of historical overestimates of coal reserves, current estimates are also likely to be excessive.
What may drive up rates of coal production in Australia at least in the short term is his prediction that coal production at current costs in the US and China will last about 10 years.
This potential increase in Australian production may very well further shorten Stubborn Mule’s 43 year prediction for our economically viable coal resources.
The Nature article concludes
At the very least, the USGS should urgently complete a new national coal survey. And it is essential for the security of energy supplies globally that Chinese domestic coal production and the timing of its likely decline is better understood.
We believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020. Therefore, new limits on energy consumption will be essential in all sectors of society — including agriculture, transportation and manufacturing — and will be imposed by energy prices and shortages if they are not achieved through planning and policy.
Supply limits also have implications for the development of clean-coal technology. Also known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), clean coal is one proposal for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions while growing energy supplies. Because maintaining economic growth while cutting coal out of the energy equation globally will be difficult, and because nearly everyone assumes that coal will remain cheap far into the foreseeable future, the idea is to keep the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal from going into the atmosphere.
There are two hitches: the difficulty of scaling up such an enterprise, and its effect on electricity prices. As many analysts have noted, the scale and cost of clean-coal infrastructure will be vast13. Energy analysts agree that this will boost the price of electricity, but the scheme could work if coal prices remain low. If they don’t, building new coal plants — conventional or clean — makes little economic sense, except to replace ageing inefficient infrastructure.
Nations should immediately begin to plan for higher fossil-fuel prices and to make maximum possible investments in energy efficiency and renewable-energy infrastructure. Even then the world will have to accept a slowdown in economic growth.”
So there you go. Predictions of world peak coal now down to 10 years.
Stubborn Mule has in fact attempted a small resources- predictions graph but as I am the complete non economist, (indeed so bad as to be nearly a reverse economist) I would be really interested in Troppo economists’ predictions of Peak Coal, world and Australia.
Perhaps an enterprising Troppo contributor could graph them too?