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Peak Coal in China: Why the Industry's Dominance May Soon Be Over

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After a decade in which coal has been grabbing an ever-larger share of the world's energy supply, could coal's boom be about to turn to bust? Both the United States and China are planning to curb coal, and analysts say the repercussions for the global industry could be dramatic. The world may soon breathe a great deal easier, as the biggest contributor to both urban smog and climate change goes into decline.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced curbs on CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, designed to deliver a cut in U.S. carbon emissions of 30 percent between 2005 and 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the measures, combined with the growth of natural gas fracking, will take coal's share of U.S. electricity production from more than 50 percent in the late 1990s to 31 percent by 2030. Within hours of the U.S. administration's announcement, there were renewed hints that China - the world's largest coal user - is headed in the same direction.

Market analysts are suggesting that investors are about to pull the plug on coal. And as the coal tide retreats, the planet's vast investment in coal infrastructure could start to look as dumb as a sub-prime mortgage in 2007.    

This would be a huge turnaround. The rise in the past decade of coal, the most carbon-intensive of major fossil fuels, has been astounding. For all the political talk of cutting carbon emissions, coal's share of global energy rose from 25 to 30 percent. Most of this was due to China, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from coal.      

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