Coal is a well-known fossil fuel that is burned to generate energy and electricity. It’s also a significant contributor of greenhouse gases exacerbating the effects of climate change. Here are 10 facts about coal, and why the world needs to quit coal to meet the Paris Agreement goals and avoid a climate disaster.
10 Coal Facts Everyone Needs to Know About
We Burn Coal for Energy
Coal is a combustible black rock resulting from plant species that have decomposed and buried underground for over millions of years. We burn this fossil fuel to generate power and electricity, which has helped our technological advancement for more than 200 years since the Industrial Revolution.
Coal is Known as the Dirtiest Fossil Fuel
As coal contains high amounts of carbon and hydrocarbons, the substance releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere when it is burned during the production process, contributing to what we now know as the greenhouse effect and global warming.
Coal burning is also one of the biggest causes of worldwide air pollution. Coal production releases air pollutants and toxic chemicals such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the air and atmosphere, which increases the risk for a number of health issues including coronary and respiratory diseases, as well as cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 91% of the world’s population is breathing in and exposed to polluted air every day.
Coal is the Biggest Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
There are many sources of greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing towards global warming and climate change including methane emissions from the agricultural industry. However, emission from coal production is by far the worst culprit of them all.
The world generated 14.36 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from coal in 2019 alone. In comparison, 12.36 billion tons of emissions were produced from oil. To avoid a climate catastrophe, the world must limit global warming to at least 1.5°C – as set out in The Paris Agreement – and phasing out coal production by 2040 is crucial in meeting that target. However, a recent UN report found that global coal production is set to exceed 240% above acceptable limits by the end of 2030.
Coal is a Non-Renewable Source of Energy
This means coal will eventually run out. Scientists estimate if coal consumption remains at its current rates, the fossil fuel will be depleted as soon as 2060. Though air pollution and worsening effects of climate change from coal burning provide more than enough reasons to eliminate it from our energy production, the fact remains that we don’t have enough coal to power the world indefinitely, and we must develop alternative and clean sources of power generation.
Coal Mining is the Most Dangerous Job In the World
Coal is extracted from the ground either via surface mining (including strip mining, open-pit mining, and mountaintop removal) or underground mining. Surface mining is done when the fossil fuel is located less than 200 feet underground. This method, though a cheaper option of cola extraction, requires the landscape to be literally torn apart using dynamite, destroying natural habitats and ecosystems. The process frequently leads to landslides and mines collapsing, while toxic materials from the mines leaches into the air and water sources in the surrounding area, endangering the health and lives of the miners and local residents.
Coal Supplies Nearly 40% of Global Electricity Generation
One of most significant facts about coal is that most of the world’s electricity today is generated from burning coal, and accounts for half of the power generated in the US – the planet’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas.
Because coal as a resource is cheap and (relatively) plentiful, developing and lower-income countries such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines struggle to quit the dirty fossil fuel. Nations don’t have the necessary resources and investment to transition towards renewable energy. In fact, India argues that higher income countries should help pay and support decarbonisation efforts, and more emphasis should be placed on per-capita emissions.
70% of the World’s Steel Production Relies on Coal
Coal plays a crucial role in supporting industries such as iron, cement and steel. 70% of the world’s steel is produced from coal. One of the more interesting facts about coal: wind turbines, which are essentially in wind power energy generation, are made from steel. This means that producing this particular renewable energy requires coal. However, various industries have begun developing green steel that relies on hydrogen, rather than coal, as an alternative and more sustainable material. This could go a long way in helping reduce carbon emissions in the production process.
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China Accounted for More Than Half of the World’s Coal Consumption
While many countries, especially in Europe and developed nations, have started phasing out coal from their energy mix and invested more in renewable energy, coal remains a significant energy source and is projected to grow in China. In 2020 alone, the country consumed more than half of the world’s coal, far exceeding India, Asia’s second largest market, which consumed less than a quarter of the amount. Based on 2019 statistics, China’s national coal production released 7.24 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, the country must eliminate coal consumption from its energy production in order to get close to the climate target.
South Africa Emits the Highest Amount of Coal-Generated Greenhouse Gas Per Capita
Despite China being named the biggest producer of coal and emitter of greenhouse gases, South Africa contributed the largest amount of emission from coal production per capita, with Australia a close second, emitting 7 tonnes and 6.49 tonnes of GHG respectively. To compare, China released 5.05 tonnes of carbon emissions from coal. Over 90% of South Africa’s power currently comes from coal, and though it made plans to get this down to 46% by 2030, the country does not intend to ban new coal-power projects to reduce its carbon footprint.
Global Coal Demand Dropped 11% During COVID-19
Worldwide demand for coal dropped 11% year-on-year during the first quarter of 2020, attributing to milder temperatures – meaning populations are using less energy for heating or cooling – competitive prices in gas and renewables, and largely on national lockdowns in China and the rest of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as countries began to open up and travel restrictions eased, coal demand quickly rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels.
Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons