to their growth, and the short time remaining before those limits would
become evident. Jevons made the bold prediction that the end of British
“progress” would come within 100 years of 1865. Jevons was right. British
coal production peaked in 1910, and by 1965 Britain was no longer a world
Let’s repeat his calculation for the world as a whole. In 2006, the coal
consumption rate was 6.3 Gt per year. Comparing this with reserves of
1600 Gt of coal, people often say “there’s 250 years of coal left.” But if
we assume “business as usual” implies a growing consumption, we get a
different answer. If the growth rate of coal consumption were to continue
at 2% per year (which gives a reasonable fit to the data from 1930 to 2000),
then all the coal would be gone in 2096. If the growth rate is 3.4% per
year (the growth rate over the last decade), the end of business-as-usual is
coming before 2072. Not 250 years, but 60!
If Jevons were here today, I am sure he would firmly predict that unless
we steer ourselves on a course different from business as usual, there will,
by 2050 or 2060, be an end to our happy progressive condition.
1571000 years – my arbitrary definition of “sustainable.” As precedent for this sort of choice, Hansen et al. (2007) equate
“more than 500 years” with “forever.”
–1 ton of coal equivalent = 29.3 GJ = 8000 kWh of chemical energy. This figure does not include the energy costs of
mining, transport, and carbon sequestration.
–Carbon capture and storage (CCS). There are several CCS technologies. Sucking the CO2 from the flue gases is one;
others gasify the coal and separate the CO2 before combustion. See Metz et al. (2005). The first prototype coal plant
with CCS was opened on 9th September 2008 by the Swedish company Vattenfall [ ].
–UK coal. In December 2005, the reserves and resources at existing mines were estimated to be 350 million tons. In
November 2005, potential opencast reserves were estimated to be 620 million tons; and the underground coal gasification
potential was estimated to be at least 7 billion tons. [ ]
158Coal-mining tends to release greenhouse gases. For information about methane release from coal-mining see www.epa.
gov/cmop/, Jackson and Kershaw (1996), Thakur et al. (1996). Global emissions of methane from coal mining are about
400 Mt CO2e per year. This corresponds to roughly 2% of the greenhouse gas emissions from burning the coal.