How Much Coal Is Left In The World, & When Will We Run Out?

In the guide below, we discuss the world’s coal resources and reserves.

We outline how much might be left, when we might run out, what might happen if we run out, and more.

 

Summary – How Much Coal Is Left, & When Will We Run Out?

Importance Of Coal, & Uses For Coal Across Society

Currently, coal serves as one of the main sources of primary energy in several major countries across world

Although coal does have claimed drawbacks, it’s still an important resource to society at this point in time

 

How Much Coal Is Left In The World – Resources, & Reserves

In the guide below, we include data on how much coal resources and also coal reserves are potentially left on Earth

Coal resources seem to be significantly higher than confirmed, or recoverable reserves (reserves that can economically and practically be reached and extracted with current technology)

One estimate indicates that confirmed world coal reserves in 2019 totalled 1,077 Gt

One report indicates that world proven coal reserves have increased from 2010 to 2020

It should be noted that there exists different types of coal, and these types of coal can be broken down separately from the coal resources and reserves totals. For example, there’s anthracite & bituminous (hard coal), and sub bituminous & lignite reserves (lignite), black vs brown coal, and so on

 

Countries With The Largest Coal Reserves

According to some reports, five countries have almost three quarters of the world’s total coal reserves

The US has the most at around a 24% share of the total

Russia, Australia, China & India round out the top 5

 

Total Yearly Coal Production

One estimate indicates that global coal production in 2019 was around 8.1 Gt

 

Countries That Produce The Most Coal

China produces the most coal by a significant margin

India, Indonesia, the United States and Australia round out the top 5 producing countries

 

Total Coal Consumption

One report indicated that the world consumed 8,561,852,178 tons (short tons, st) of coal in the year 2016

Converting short tons to Gt, this is roughly 7.76 Gt

 

Will We Run Out Of Coal, & If So, When?

One set of data indicates that coal reserves have been increasing year on year in recent years.

As long as this trend continues, there may not be a high likelihood we run out of coal in the short term.

Additionally, multiple estimates indicates that there could be well over 100 years worth of coal left 

However, when coal runs out or starts becoming more scarce depends on a range of factors, which we outline in the guide below 

 

What Happens If We Run Out Of Coal?

Price of coal, and availability of coal for energy generation and other key uses of coal will likely be affected as coal becomes more scarce (or, as easily or cheaply mined deposits of coal are depleted)

 

Managing Coal Resources More Sustainably

In the guide below, we outline some ways that we might be able to use coal more sustainably as a resource across society

We also outline how coal can be substituted for other energy sources

 

Firstly, What Makes Coal So Important In Society, & What Do We Use Coal For?

One of the most important uses for coal in society is as an energy source

Along with natural gas and oil, coal is one of the most used energy sources for primary energy consumption, and also for electricity generation

Different countries have different energy mixes, but coal still features as one of the main energy sources for several major countries worldwide

 

From bgr.bund.de:

With a share of around 27 % of global primary energy consumption, coal was the second most important energy resource in 2019 behind crude oil.

Coal accounted for a 36.5 % share of global power generation in 2019, and thus more than any other energy resource

 

How Much Coal Is Left In The World? – Resources, & Proven Reserves

The total amount of coal resources left seem to be significantly higher than the total amount of coal reserves left.

From 2010 to 2020, world proven coal reserves have increased

A distinction should also be made about the different types of coal, and how much of each are left.

 

Total Resources

From bgr.bund.de:

Coal resources world-wide are many times higher than coal reserves.

Global resources of hard coal totalled 16,193 Gt, whilst the global resources of lignite totalled 3,683 Gt 

 

Coal resources are estimated to be 860 billion tonnes (sciencedirect.com)

 

Total Reserves

Confirmed coal reserves world-wide at the end of 2019 totalled 1,077 Gt, split between 754 Gt hard coal and 324 Gt lignite (bgr.bund.de)

 

As of December 31, 2015, estimates of total world proved recoverable reserves of coal were about 1,136 billion short tons, (or 1.1 trillion short tons) (eia.gov)

 

There are an estimated 1.1 trillion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide (worldcoal.org)

 

Total Proved Reserves Over Time – Trends

statista.com has a graph showing that world proved coal reserves have increased overall from 2010 to 2020

In 2010, total world proved coal reserves were 860,938 million metric tons, and in 2020 they were 1,074,108 million metric tons

Most of the total reserves in 2020 are composed of anthracite and bituminous, with sub-bituminous and lignite making up the rest

 

Total Reserves vs Recoverable Reserves

It’s important to distinguish between total coal reserves and how much of that is recoverable coal reserves.

Recoverable coal includes ‘only the coal that can be mined with today’s mining technology after considering accessibility constraints and recovery factors’.

 

Some Uncertainty In Estimating Actual Amount Of Coal Left

From eia.gov:

Estimating exactly how much coal is left can be slightly difficult because coal is buried underground [and …] Estimates are made based on varying levels/degrees of geologic certainty

 

Countries With The Largest Coal Reserves

The US has the largest share of coal reserves of all countries

 

From wikipedia.org, referencing a 2019 BP report, the countries with the largest coal reserves were:

The United States – 24% share of total world coal reserves (250,219 million tonnes total)

Russia – 15% share of total world coal reserves (160,364 million tonnes total)

Australia – 14% share of total world coal reserves (147,435 million tonnes total)

China – 13% share of total world coal reserves (138,819 million tonnes total)

India – 10% share of total world coal reserves (101,363 million tonnes total)

In the wikipedia.org resource, they also break the totals down separately into both anthracite & bituminous, and sub bituminous & lignite reserves

 

From eia.gov:

Five countries had about 74% of the world’s coal reserves.

The top five countries and their share of world proved coal reserves:

United States—22%

Russia—16%

Australia—14%

China—13%

India—9%

 

From worldcoal.org:

Coal reserves are available in almost every country worldwide, with recoverable reserves in around 70 countries.

The biggest reserves are in the USA, Russia, China and India 

 

How Much Coal We Produce Per Year

Total Global Coal Production

Global coal production in 2019 was around 8.1 Gt, of which around 7.1 Gt were accounted for by hard coal (bgr.bund.de)

 

Countries That Produce The Most Coal

From wikipedia, referencing a 2021 BP report, the countries that produced the most coal in 2020 were:

China – 3902 million tonnes

India – 756.5 million tonnes

Indonesia – 562.5 million tonnes

United States – 484.7 million tonnes

Australia – 476.7 million tonnes

The data from wikipedia.org in the table they provide illustrates that China has been the largest coal producer every year in recent history

 

How Much Coal We Use Per Year

Total Global Coal Consumption Per Year

The world consumes 8,561,852,178 tons (short tons, st) of coal per year as of the year 2016

 

Potential Reasons Why Coal Shortages May Happen In Some Countries

Potential Reasons For Temporary Coal Shortages

In India in 2021, thehindu.com indicated that the biggest reasons for a coal shortage at the time was increased power demand.

In Vietnam in 2022, reuters.com indicated that Vietnam experienced a domestic coal shortage, but, that Vietnam could import more coal from Australia to address the shortage.

 

Potentially Inaccurately Labelling Some Power Problems As Coal Shortages

Some reports point out that some power problems are inaccurately labelled as a coal shortage.

As one example, ndtv.com indicates that in India in 2022, power outages were caused not by coal shortages under normal conditions, but by a decline in electricity generation from other energy sources, which placed more of a burden on coal sources.

As another example, scmp.com indicated that in China in 2022, a power crisis was created not by a real coal shortage, but by China’s miscalculations in coal-production planning (e.g. limiting/capping coal production), and by systemic problems, including China’s state-controlled and fixed electricity rates.

 

Are We Running Out Of Coal Now, & Will We Run Out Of Coal In The Future?

Although there isn’t a definitive answer to this question, it does not appear as though we will run out of coal in the short term future.

Medium to long term factors that may influence how much coal is available to extract and use in the future might include (but isn’t limited to):

– Demand and consumption rate of coal

The higher the consumption rate of coal, the more coal that has to be produced to meet this demand

Demand and consumption of coal are influenced heavily at the moment by countries like China who use majority of the world’s coal

 

– Production rate of coal, and the ability to scale production in the future to meet demand

The greater the production rate, the greater the rate of proven reserve usage is

Additionally, the more a country invests in production, the more they might be able to scale production to meet domestic demand. However, there may be limitations on production

 

– Whether coal reserves increase, decrease or stay stable over time

One chart from worldometers.info indicates that the world’s proven coal reserves have actually increased from 2008 to 2017

As long as this trend increases (i.e. we can keep continuing new recoverable reserves when current reserves are dipping) – there may not be a significant likelihood that we run out of coal in the near term future

 

– Developments in mining/extraction technology, and new processes

As new technology and processes for mining and extraction are developed, a greater range of coal resources might be able to be physically accessed, as well as a greater range of coal resources being more economically feasible to extract and bring to market

 

– New exploration and discovery of coal resources

More exploration may identify new coal resources that were previously undiscovered, and these coal resources could potentially become proven reserves at some point in time

 

– Restrictions placed on coal when prioritising issues such as a changing climate, air pollution, and so on

Some countries have already pivoted to other energy sources as a greater share of their energy mix in place of coal

 

Running Out Of Resources Is Different Than Individual Countries & Regions Not Having Access To Resources, Or Not Having Enough Supply To Meet Demand

There’s a difference between there being natural gas resources available to extract, being able to physically access them and mine them in an economically feasible way, producing natural gas resources and bring them to market, and different countries have access to enough of these resources to meet their demand.

It’s possible that globally there can be enough natural gas being produced to meet demand, but individual countries can experience supply deficits for a range of reasons.

So, access to adequate natural gas supplies can differ based on geography/different countries.

 

Why We Might Never Run Out Of Some Mined Resources

We put together this guide which explains why we might never run out of some resources:

We Might Never Run Out Of Mined Resources (Minerals, Metals, Fossil Fuels etc) – Here’s Why

One of the general points we make is that once easily/cheaply extractable deposits of resources like coal are exhausted, coal may simply become more expensive as new extraction activities become more costly.

 

When Will We Run Out Of Coal, & How Many Years Worth Of Coal Do We Have Left?

There’s no definitive answer to this question – only estimates can be made, and they can change as factors like proven reserve totals, production totals, and consumption totals change year to year.

The global estimates below range anywhere from 30 years up to 150 years worth of coal left.

What we also outline in our guides about the world’s oil resources, and the world’s natural gas resources, is that estimates can vary for individual countries too.

 

Global Estimates

[Globally] … there is enough coal to last us around 150 years at current rates of production (worldcoal.org)

 

[Taking into consideration the current rate of coal production and current known fuel reserves, we have about 114 years worth of coal reserves left] (ourworldindata.org)

 

ecotricity.co.uk has two separate forecasts on coal:

[Forecast 1:]

We’ll still have gas and coal left by the time oil runs out in 2052.

But if we increase gas production to fill the energy gap left by oil, then those reserves will only give us an additional eight years, taking us to 2060

[Forecast 2:]

It’s often claimed that we have enough coal to last hundreds of years.

But if we step up production to fill the gap left through depleting our oil and gas reserves, the coal deposits we know about will run out in 2088.

 

The reserves and resources of hard coal and lignite will be able to cover the foreseeable demand for many decades from a geological point of view (bgr.bund.de)

 

US Estimate

From eia.gov, in regards to the US:

Based on U.S. coal production in 2017 of about 0.78 billion short tons, the recoverable coal reserves would last about 325 years, and recoverable reserves at producing mines would last about 26 years.

The actual number of years that those reserves will last depends on changes in production and reserves estimates

 

What Happens If We Run Out Of Coal?

Running out of any resource may impact things such as:

– The availability of that resource for the key things we use it for across society

 

– The price of that resource as it becomes more scarce, and consequently, the affordability of the things we use that resource for 

This is something we mentioned in our guide about why we may not run out of mined resources anytime soon.

As easily and cheaply mined deposits of coal start to be depleted, the price of coal will likely start to increase before coal runs out. This is partially a result of extraction and coal mining activities becoming more costly (if harder to reach, or more costly to mine coal deposits have to be mined).

 

Is Coal A Renewable Resource?

Coal is not considered a renewable resource.

It’s finite, and we consume it at a greater rate than it forms in nature.

 

Managing Coal Resources More Sustainably

There might be a range of ways to manage coal more sustainably, including but not limited to:

– Reducing consumption and demand for coal, and using coal more efficiently

– Substituting coal as an energy source for other energy sources where possible

 

These options and others might place less of a burden on extracting new coal in the future.

 

Reducing Coal Consumption & Demand

An example of reducing coal consumption and demand might be:

– Increasing the efficiency of coal fired power plants

 

Substitutes For Coal

Coal used for energy generation can be substituted with other resources used for energy generation (fully, or partially)

We already do this now, and it can both help reduce emissions, as well as reduce the consumption/demand for coal (which may also help in the future if coal starts to become more scarce, and/or more expensive to extract and use)

Renewable energy sources and alternative energy sources like solar, wind, water, nuclear energy and others offer energy sources for the future separate to coal.

 

Burning The Remaining Coal Reserves – Potential Impact On A Changing Climate

It is perhaps worth consideration what impact burning the remaining coal reserves might have on a changing climate.

Some reports indicate majority of the remaining reserves have to left in the ground to achieve climate goals.

 

… we will have to leave between 65 to 80 percent of current known reserves untouched if we are to stand a chance of keeping average global temperature rise below our two-degrees global target (ourworldindata.org)

 

 

Sources

1. https://www.worldcoal.org/coal/where-coal-found

2. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=coal_reserves 

3. https://www.ecotricity.co.uk/our-green-energy/energy-independence/the-end-of-fossil-fuels 

4. https://ourworldindata.org/how-long-before-we-run-out-of-fossil-fuels

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_by_country

7. https://www.worldometers.info/coal/

8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/coal-resource

9. https://www.bgr.bund.de/EN/Themen/Energie/Kohle/kohle_node_en.html

10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_coal_production

11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_coal_reserves

12. https://www.worldometers.info/coal/

13. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-why-india-faces-annual-coal-shortage-how-does-it-affect-power-supply/article65339185.ece

14. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/vietnam-seeks-import-more-coal-australia-avert-power-shortage-2022-04-01/

15. https://www.ndtv.com/business/current-power-crisis-due-to-sharp-fall-in-generation-not-due-to-non-availability-of-domestic-coal-2915167

16. https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3155584/chinas-power-crisis-man-made-and-miscalculations-beijing

17. https://www.statista.com/statistics/265450/global-proved-reserves-of-coal/

Leave a Comment