Power Week - Coal

It's true coal launched the industrial revolution, with all the benefits that it brought to humankind. But the cost has been huge – both in terms of human health and greenhouse gas emissions. Add to that mining accidents, local people forced out of their homes to make way for new coal mines, acid rain and smog pollution, and you'll see why King Coal has had its day.

Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet, and the dominant source of CO2 emissions. Across the world, about 10 billion tonnes of CO2 come from coal-fired power generation every year, making up 30% of fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

It's not only the dirtiest fossil fuel, it's unfortunately also the cheapest, making it dangerously appealing for emerging economies wanting to industrialise quickly to catch up with the developed world. China's a good example. By some estimates, its economy has grown 30-fold since 1980, most of it fuelled by coal. China's dependence on coal contributed half of global CO2 emissions growth in the past decade. The price has been horrendous air pollution that is claiming over a million lives every year, most of it linked to coal-burning.

But the signs are that coal has had its day. As China strives to tackle its air pollution crisis and modernize its economy, coal consumption is falling even while its economy continues to grow, resulting in the largest reduction in CO2 emissions for any country, ever.

The World Bank has warned that coal is no answer to global poverty. Its climate change envoy, Rachel Kyte, said recently that when it came to lifting countries out of poverty, coal was part of the problem, not the solution.

Investors, at least, appear to be listening. Coal companies are in trouble around the world. In the US, nearly 40 coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection since 2012. Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world, has lost nearly 90% of its value in the past year.

But some governments, particularly in Australia and Japan, continue to support this dirty fuel. They need to understand that coal is history. It cannot be made "clean" by technological solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS), where carbon emissions from power plants are buried underground. CCS requires particular geological conditions which don't exist in many countries. And even Norway, which has plenty of "suitable" areas (empty gas and oil fields underground), has abandoned some of its key projects, because it's too expensive.

Still, coal continues to enjoy huge public subsidies, along with oil and gas, of about $550 billion a year. These have to end. The future is not coal, it's renewable energy. Coal is part of human history. Now it belongs in a museum.


  • The Swiss bank UBS says large-scale centralised power stations will soon become extinct because they are "not relevant" for future electricity generation. Instead, it'll be cheaper and more efficient for households and businesses to generate their own energy.

  • Pollution from coal-fired power plants in the EU resulted in thousands of premature deaths. In countries with heavy coal use, more people seem to be killed by coal than in traffic accidents.

  • The European Commission says improving energy efficiency by 40% by 2030 would cut fossil fuel imports by €505 billion a year.

Joanna Mills is a Communications Strategist for Greenpeace International.