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China's shift may mean coal's days are numbered

Adam Dean | Bloomberg | Getty Images

China's renewal of its carbon reduction targets, as well as reports that it is clamping down on coal production, has led analysts to turn bearish on the outlook for coal, claiming that peak demand for the fossil-fuel could be behind us.

Coal is used to generate 40 percent of the world's electricity, and its use has grown more than 50 percent in the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But the fossil-fuel is well-known for its detrimental environmental impact, causing air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions that are strongly linked to global warming.

China is responsible for 47 percent of global coal consumption—almost as much as the rest of the world combined, according to the International Energy Agency, and became a net importer in 2009.

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However, the new political regime in China, and its focus on a more consumer-led economy could bring change.

"The world has become addicted to China's demand for coal," Paolo Coghe, European power, coal and carbon analyst at Societe Generale told CNBC. He warned that if the Chinese economy was slowing down, China could become a net exporter of coal, which would be very negative for prices.

"Peak coal demand could be happening now, but we will have to see what happens next year. The effects will be seen in the next 3-5 years," Coghe said.

This July, China renewed its 2005 goal to cut its carbon usage by 40-45 percent by 2020. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has signaled it will stop funding coal projects abroad as part of its foreign-aid spending, and the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have done the same.

(Read more: China's starts its turnaround, yet skeptics still abound)

"The window for thermal coal investment is closing," the commodities research team at Goldman Sachs, headed by Christian Lelong, said in a note on July 24. The bank downgraded its price forecasts for thermal coal, which is primarily used to generate heat, to US$83 per ton in 2014 and US$85/t in 2015, citing environmental regulations, competition from gas and renewable energy, and improvements in energy efficiency.

The August futures price of thermal coal at Australia's Newcastle port, a regional benchmark for Asia, has fallen 17 percent this year, and closed near $78 a ton last week, its lowest in almost four years. The price is now 43 percent below its post-2008 recession high of $139.05 a ton, struck in January 2011.

Coghe, whose price targets are similar Goldman Sachs's, said mines might cut production if coal prices are hit.

"This could hurt Australia," he told CNBC, explaining that Australia had found economic success in supplying coal to a rapidly expanding China, but should have restricted production and investment in coal sooner.

He added that the "only hope" for Australia's coal industry was in exporting to India.

"The only hope would be India, they are a very large producer and consumer, but they are having strong difficulties internally," he said.

Meanwhile, China may be moving more quickly towards its reduction targets than investors initially believed. Earlier in August, Electric Light and Power magazine said Chinese authorities had canceled the building of a coal-fired plant near Shenzen, due to strong public opposition over air pollution concerns. Greenpeace said this could potentially be a "watershed" moment, with spokesperson Aaron Gray-Block telling CNBC that it was a clear example of how public outrage about air pollution was affecting China's energy policy.

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But naysayers remain convinced that coal will continue to play a vital role in China. Milton Catelin, the CEO of the World Coal Association, told CNBC that it has been the major energy source in fueling China's industrial development, raising over 660 million people out of poverty over the past three decades.

"The role of coal is compatible with meeting environmental challenges – such as the 2020 carbon target," Catelin told CNBC. "At a time when 1.3 billion people worldwide still don't have access to energy, it's a little premature to start talking about demand for energy sources, including coal, 'peaking'. All sources of energy will be needed to meet the huge energy poverty challenge we face."

By CNBC.com's Matt Clinch. Follow him on Twitter @mattclinch81

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