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
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 actually increased between the years 2010 and 2020
It should be noted that there exists different types of coal, and there might be different amounts of these individual types of coal under the total coal resources and total coal reserves
For example, there might be different amounts of anthracite & bituminous (hard coal), and sub bituminous & lignite reserves (lignite)
Ultimately, due to various factors that are difficult to definitively measure, estimating how much coal is left might possess some level of uncertainty
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 according to the available data
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 might be 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 potential factors, which we outline in the guide below
It’s also worth noting that there’s a difference between running out of coal on a worldwide level, and an individual country running out of uranium.
Some countries may have much larger domestic supplies of coal left than others
What Happens If We Run Out Of Coal?
Price of coal, and availability of coal for energy generation and other key uses of coal might be affected as coal becomes more scarce (or, deposits of coal that are economically feasible to mine 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 might 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 might be 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
[Coal has a] share of around 27 % of global primary energy consumption [and] 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 [which is …] 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.
Between the years 2010 and 2020, total 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 – these totals can be different to the overall coal totals.
For example, there appears to be more hard coal resources than lignite (brown coal) resources left
Various reports indicate that there can always be a level of uncertainty in estimating how much coal we really have left
From bgr.bund.de: ‘Coal resources world-wide are many times higher than coal reserves’
Coal resources are estimated to be 860 billion tonnes (sciencedirect.com)
Resources Of Hard Coal vs Lignite (Brown Coal)
From bgr.bund.de: ‘Global resources of hard coal totalled 16,193 Gt, whilst the global resources of lignite totalled 3,683 Gt’
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 between the years 2010 to 2020
When looking at their graph, and paraphrasing the data there:
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
eia.gov indicates 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
According to the data below, the US has the largest share of coal reserves of all countries
Additionally, a small number of countries – about 5 countries – might have most of the world’s total coal reserves.
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)
[Behind the US, Russia is second with a 15% share of total word coal reserves, followed by Australia at 14%, China at 13%, and India at 10%]
In the wikipedia.org resource, they also break the totals down separately into both anthracite & bituminous, and sub bituminous & lignite reserves
Five countries had about 74% of the world’s coal reserves.
The top five countries and their share of world proved coal reserves:
[Russia was in second at 16%, Australia at 14%, China at 13%, and India at 9%]
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
Most of the coal produced each year might be hard coal
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
The data from wikipedia.org in the table they provide illustrates that China might be the largest producer for coal worldwide, and China has also been the largest coal producer every year in recent history
From wikipedia, referencing a 2021 BP report, the countries that produced the most coal in 2020 were:
China – 3902 million tonnes
[India was in second place at 756.5 million tonnes, followed by Indonesia at 562.5 million tonnes, the United States at 484.7 million tonnes, and Australia at 476.7 million tonnes]
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
Increases in power demand and local/domestic supply shortages may lead to local coal shortages in some countries.
In India in 2021, thehindu.com indicated that (paraphrased) 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.
Some Power Problems May Get Incorrectly Labelled As Coal Shortages
Some reports point out that some power problems are inaccurately labelled as, or falsely attributed to a coal shortage.
A few examples of this might include:
ndtv.com indicated that (paraphrased) 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.
scmp.com indicated that (paraphrased) 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 appears as though we may not run out of coal in the short term future.
Some of the medium to long term factors that may influence how much coal is available to extract and use in the future might include (but aren’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 might be 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 also 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 between the years 2008 and 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
The World Running Out Of Coal vs Individual Countries Running Out Of Coal
There’s a difference between the world running out of coal, and an individual country running out of coal.
The factors impacting both might be different.
It’s possible that globally there can be enough coal being produced to meet demand, but individual countries can experience supply deficits for a range of reasons.
Some countries may also generally be at a surplus because of abundant and accessible domestic supplies.
So, access to coal can differ based on geography.
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:
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 might be no definitive answer to this question
Only estimates might be able to be made, and they can change as factors like proven reserve totals, production totals, and consumption totals change year to year.
The current global estimates below range anywhere from 30 years up to 150 years worth of coal left.
[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:
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
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)
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 generally 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 might 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 might 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 general consumption and demand for coal
– 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 i.e. the rate at which they convert coal to power
Potential Substitutes For Coal
Coal used for energy generation may in some instances be substituted with other resources used for energy generation (fully, or partially)
We already do this now in some ways
It may also 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)
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