Science says China has already hit peak coal use

A policeman directing traffic in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province of China. Wei Liang/CNSPHOTO/VCG/VCG via Getty Images

China has likely already hit peak coal, the point at which consumption starts to decline, as the world’s economic powerhouse switches to renewable energy.

The timing of China’s peak coal consumption has been disputed with a majority of projections placing it between 2020 and 2040.

However, the latest research in the journal Nature Geoscience argues that either 2014 or 2015 are likely to be the point of peak coal consumption.

Peak coal has implications for Australian producers. China is the world’s largest producer and user of coal and Australia is its largest external source.

The researchers, including Tong Wu Tempe of Tsinghua University, Beijing, say China’s coal use dropped to 4.12 billion tons in 2014, a decrease of 2.9%. It dropped again in 2015 by another 3.6%.

In 2015, the share of coal in the energy mix in China fell to 64.4% from 70%.

“This has been part of a fundamental shift in the Chinese economy’s relationship with coal, one that has been largely unnoticed until the recent peak in consumption,” the researchers write.

Analysts argue over peak coal in China because there are ambiguities in the official data.

However, this latest analysis uses revised statistics with more accurate accounting.

The researchers attribute the sooner-than-expected peak to three main factors: slower economic growth, a decline in coal-intensive industries and new environmental policies.

Historical trajectories of economic development and coal consumption for the UK, the US and China. Image: Nature Geoscience

They say coal will continue to be an important energy source for the Chinese economy but economic growth and improving living standards will no longer be coupled to rising coal consumption.

“Historically, peak coal consumption has been an important milestone in the process of economic development,” the researchers write.

“In transitioning to post-coal growth, China is following the path of affluent industrial economies.”

China has followed this trend, but its shift away from coal-fired growth has been more sudden and proactive. Its policy emphasis on renewable energy is likely to help make the phase of oil and gas substitution shorter.

Researchers say a peak in China’s coal consumption may well be an important turning point in international efforts to mitigate the emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases.

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