In a paper authored by Chinese academics in 2017, there was this graph of their best estimate of the trajectory of Chinese coal production:

Figure 1: Projection of Chinese coal production to 2100.

Their best guess of the year of the production peak was 2024, which is now. There is no plateau; production tips over into a decline rate that settles down at 75 million tonnes per year and starts bottoming out late in the century. There is some support for this prediction in that Chinese coal imports have started rising strongly in the last few years. To fill their production contracts in 2024, Chinese coal mines are tending to wash their coal less, producing the contract tonnage but with a lower calorific value.

Most of China’s coal production is from underground mines with mining cost increasing with depth. It is said that the average depth of Chinese underground coal mines is increasing by 10 to 25 metres per annum. The average dip of coal seams mined is 13˚. There is indirect support for the view that at least half of China’s coal endowment has been mined from this graphic from a 2023 paper:

Figure 2: Chinese coal reserves distribution by depth

The figure is representational in that shows about 800 billion tonnes have been mined so far above 600 metres mine depth while total Chinese coal production to date is more likely to be 130 billion tonnes. What can be interpreted from it is that some 80% of coal reserves above 600 metres mine depth have already been mined and 60% of the coal between 600 metres and 1,000 metres depth. The remainder of China’s original coal endowment is much deeper and therefore will be more expensive to mine.

China’s industrial expansion was powered initially by its cheap labour followed by cheap energy. That phase is over with China’s power price for industry now rising. One consequence of that is that the cost of renewable energy, solar panels and wind turbines, will go up as their production costs rise with the Chinese coal price. China’s coal consumption is the energy equivalent of 50 million barrels of oil per day.

While China’s annual coal production increases were galloping along, there was another energy boom 15,000 km to the east which also had geopolitical consequences – the US tight oil boom. This is peaking at the same time as China’s coal production:

Figure 3: US Oil and Gas Production and Chinese Coal Production on an oil equivalent basis, 1900 – 2060.

Most projections of US tight oil production having it plateauing for a number of years before it goes into decline. It seems that the idea that will be an abrupt change in direction is too uncomfortable for people to process. But when there is unconstrained production of a profitable commodity in a large market the profile is usually symmetrical around a pronounced peak. The prime example of that is the UK which has now exhausted its fossil fuel endowment with production peaks 90 years apart:

Figure 4: UK Coal and Oil Production 1853 – 2021

It is not commonly appreciated that US gas production, tight and conventional, is the energy equivalent of 18 million barrels per day of oil, some 50% more than US oil production. The decline forecast for the US is 1.7 million barrels per day equivalent and China’s decline will be at about half that rate but go on four times longer. The US has its coal endowment to fall back on while the only alternative available to China is nuclear. China could import more coal but there isn’t that much that is readily available to be developed.

So then the question is how much nuclear is needed for China to keep the lights on? The coal to uranium equivalence is:

1 million tonnes per annum coal = 78.6 MW = 15.7 tonnes of natural uranium

So, if the projected annual Chinese coal production decline of 75 million tonnes was wholly replaced by nuclear, that would increase demand of uranium metal by 1,179 tonnes each year. This would increase world demand for uranium from its current level by about 20% every ten years.

How fast can the nuclear rollout proceed? That is shown by what happened two generations ago in France:

Figure 5: Electricity production by source, France 1960 to 2015

Nuclear’s share of power generation in France went from 10% to 70% over ten years.

We are going to Net Zero whether we like it or not – because the biggest sources of supply growth over the last 20 years have tipped over into steep decline. Fossil fuels are leaving us before we leave them. Much pain and suffering follows.

David Archibald is the author of The Anticancer Garden in Australia