BEIJING (Reuters) - Bringing coal use to a peak by 2020 could save China billions of dollars in environmental costs, slash water consumption by nearly 30 percent and prevent tens of thousands of deaths from coal-related illnesses, a study released on Thursday said. China's coal demand fell for the first time in over a decade in 2014, and production also dipped 5.8 percent in the first half of this year, largely as a result of a slowdown in major downstream sectors like power, steel and cement. But without specific measures to rein in growth, coal consumption could continue to increase until 2030, aggravating public health risks and putting pressure on China's already strained water supplies, experts with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a U.S. environmental think tank, warned in a study released in Beijing on Thursday. "If the timeline for the peak is set in 2020, it will benefit water resources, environment, public health, the transition to new energy sources and the creation of new green jobs," the report said. Coal accounts for more than 75 percent of China's total power production. While some groups have forecast consumption could peak as early as 2019, both the China National Coal Association and the International Energy Agency have said that output would continue to rise well beyond 2020. The NRDC has been collaborating with official Chinese think tanks to look at the possibility of imposing a cap on coal consumption, and will submit its findings to the government at the end of July. It estimated that imposing a 2020 cap on coal use would save the country as much as 251 billion yuan ($40.4 billion) a year in environmental and power generation costs alone. It would also dramatically cut airborne emissions like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, while the annual number of coal-related fatalities would fall by 48,000 by 2020, and by 89,000 by 2030. "Business as usual" policies would see total coal consumption rising to 4.8 billion tonnes, up from 3.9 billion tonnes last year, the report said. The extra demand would not only raise carbon emissions but also increase water use in the sector to nearly 105 billion cubic meters by 2030, 37 billion cubic meters more than the country can currently supply, it said. China aims to cut coal consumption in Beijing and several surrounding provinces by 83 million tonnes over the 2013-2017 period, but experts have expressed concern that the failure to impose a nationwide cap will mean that production is merely shifted to western provinces. ($1 = 6.2093 Chinese yuan) (Reporting By Kathy Chen and David Stanway; Editing by Richard Pullin)
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