The case against coal

Background - 15 April, 2010
From mining to combustion coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Burning coal is the largest single source of climate changing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the world.

Coal causes climate change

Coal burning is responsible for one-third of all our carbon dioxide pollution (CO2). It is the most polluting way to generate electricity accounting for over 70 percent of the CO2 emissions from the power sector. CO2 is the most prevalent of the greenhouse gasses (GHGs) fuelling the greatest environmental, humanitarian and economic threat the world has ever faced: climate change

According to the Stern report, the potential cost of dealing with the climate change caused by this CO2 will be up to 20 percent of the world’s GDP by 2100. 

Avoiding climate change’s worst impacts means halting the growth in CO2 emissions by 2015 and then reducing the emissions radically thereafter.

Clearly, saving the climate means quitting coal.


Many countries such as Poland, South Africa and Australia rely heavily on coal, each getting more than 80 percent of its energy from coal-fired power stations. This is bad enough, but despite coal’s devastating effects on our climate, governments are still approving plans for new coal fired power plants around the globe.

In the US, 150 planned coal-fired power plants would contribute to a projected 34 percent increase in US carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.   

Despite the EU’s promise to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2020 as part of a global deal, many European countries are also investing in new coal plants. Germany has promised to reduce CO2 emissions 40 percent by this date and yet is planning over 20 new coal-fired power stations that would push up CO2 emissions by about 130 million tonnes a year. This is about the same as the energy-related CO2 emissions from Austria and Denmark combined.

If we continue down this path, in 2030 CO2 emissions from coal will have increased globally by 60 percent, undermining any international agreement to tackle climate change.

The good news is that we don’t have to. In all cases, energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies are ready to dramatically reduce our dependence on coal.

Health and environmental impacts

  • Coal is the single biggest source of climate changing CO2 pollution.
  • Coal mining destroys ecosystems, releases toxic levels of minerals and gasses into our water and air (including the potent greenhouse gas methane) and exposes miners and those who live nearby to coal dust and other toxins. Thousands of people die in mine collapses around the world every year.
  • Beside CO2, coal combustion  releases millions of tons of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air, which create acid rain and smog
  • Coal burning also yields particulate matter pollution, which creates air pollution and respiratory ailments, among other health problems.
  • Another by-product of burning coal is mercury, which infiltrates the food chain and attacks the human nervous system. Young children and babies, whose nervous systems are still developing, are especially vulnerable.
  • Burning coal creates millions of tonnes of waste products that contain toxic levels of heavy metals and minerals. These mostly end up in landfill sites or impoundments, and pose a threat to our health and environment.

We need a [R]evolution!

The world doesn't need more coal, it needs an energy revolution. We have enough technically accessible renewable energy to meet current energy demands six times over.  Our Energy [R]evolution blueprint shows how renewable energy, combined with greater energy efficiency, can cut global CO2 emissions by almost 50 percent, and deliver half the world's energy needs by 2050.