The world is still addicted to coal. It’s one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions and a key driver of climate change. But it’s also abundant, easy to transport and convenient to store. The power and heat it generates have helped lift millions of people out of poverty. Developing countries, notably India and China, say access to cheap electricity from coal is crucial to economic growth. Despite widespread calls to curb usage, the fuel is so entrenched that global consumption increased slightly in 2017 and 2018, reversing two years of modest declines. Coal is the world’s biggest source of electricity, generating almost 40 percent of it, and demand is expected to remain steady for decades.
Coal’s dominance is sustained largely by its widespread use in Asia. China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, tripled its use from 2010 through 2017, while India, the No. 2 user, more than doubled the amount it burned. India’s consumption is expected to rise by another quarter by the end of 2023, while China’s is projected to fall almost 3 percent, in part because of the country’s ambitious clean energy plans. In the U.S. and Europe, coal is in decline. U.S. President Donald Trump has attempted to revive the industry by easing regulations. But the country’s utilities are facing growing public opposition to coal and state policies limiting its use. California, for example, passed a law in 2018 to phase out the burning of fossil fuels to generate power by 2045. At the same time, cheap gas and renewable energy are providing competitive alternatives. U.S. power providers shuttered coal plants at a record rate in 2018, and electricity generated from coal has fallen more than 40 percent in the past decade. The story is similar in Europe, where efforts to battle climate change dragged consumption down by 28 percent from 2010 through 2017. Through his philanthropy, Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority stakeholder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, supports efforts around the world aimed at replacing coal power with cleaner alternatives.
Contemporary opposition to coal focuses mostly on its role in climate change; burning the fuel emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and 28 percent more than heating oil. But coal has always been controversial. In 1306, King Edward I banned its use in London because of heavy smoke from its fires. Centuries later, coal powered the industrial revolution and shrouded London in fogs that were common until the mid-20th century. (The word “smog” was coined by a Londoner in 1905.) In the U.S., coal was first found near Richmond, Virginia, in 1791. The fuel powered the country’s railroad system and its westward expansion. In recent decades, coal burning has been shown to produce toxic airborne pollutants. These include mercury emissions, which can threaten childhood development, and sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, both of which are linked to asthma and bronchitis. Coal ranks second to oil among the world’s energy sources. There’s enough to last for 150 years at current production levels. China, India and Japan are the largest importers; Indonesia, Australia and Russia are the biggest exporters.
To limit global warning to below 2 degrees Celsius, as the world’s governments agreed to do under the landmark 2015 Paris agreement, global coal consumption would need to fall by more than half, according to the International Energy Agency. Instead, it’s expected to remain roughly flat through 2040. In some ways, that’s the triumph of economic priorities over environmental ones: Coal remains attractive to developing countries that need to meet galloping demands for electricity, especially in Asia, where natural gas is relatively expensive. Solar and wind power don’t ensure a 24-hour supply or fit easily into existing power grids. Coal’s opponents, who argue that the rock is best left in the ground, have added a new tactic: pressuring banks and other investors to pull back from the industry, and at least 100 major lenders have imposed restrictions on power plants and mining operations in recent years. Some industry supporters promote the idea of “clean coal” innovations: technological fixes such as carbon-capture systems that theoretically would remove as much as 90 percent of the emissions from power plants. But these remain unproven and expensive.
Mario Parker contributed to an earlier version of this article.
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First published May 5, 2015
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