Confronting Coal


Can’t live with it, can’t live without it: Has anything earned that description more richly than coal? It’s the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions and a major contributor to global warming. It’s also cheap and abundant. The power and warmth it generates has helped lift millions out of poverty and misery in China, India and other emerging nations. Coal is cheaper than other energy sources because it’s accessible, easy to transport and simple to store. There’s more to coal’s appeal than economics; worried eastern Europeans, for instance, see their plentiful domestic supplies as an alternative to perilous dependence on Russian oil and gas. Efforts to curb coal’s use have proliferated. They haven’t succeeded. Coal generates about 40 percent of the world’s electricity and is poised to dethrone crude oil as the largest energy source by 2020.

The Situation

Coal ranks second among the world’s largest sources of energy. There’s enough to last for 132 years at 2012 production levels. China consumes as much of it as the U.S. does of oil, nourishing economic growth and choking cities. China, Japan and India are the largest importers of the fuel, while Indonesia, Australia, Russia and the U.S. are the biggest exporters. In 2011, Germany’s appetite for coal increased to the highest level in four years after Chancellor Angela Merkel shut eight nuclear power stations following the Fukushima disaster in Japan and moved to close all of them by 2022. Burning coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and 28 percent more pollutants than heating oil. That’s why the U.S. has forced the closing or costly upgrade of power plants that rely on the fuel, a trend the government hoped to accelerate with the release in June of a plan to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The country retired 10.2 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity in 2012, enough to power 7.2 million homes — about five times the number in Los Angeles.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

The Background

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 fired the industrial revolution and shrouded London in fogs that were common from 1750 through the middle of the 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. Baltimore became the first American city to use it for street lights, starting in 1816. The fuel powered the country’s railroad system and its westward expansion. By the early part of the 20th century, coal made the United Mine Workers the largest union in the U.S. Its battles with mining companies were among the nation’s bloodiest.

The Argument

There’s no serious dispute about coal’s contribution to climate change. There’s a lot about what to do about it. In December 2009, more than 100 countries, including the U.S. and China, agreed in Copenhagen to limit global warming, but there were no new legally binding targets. The European Union has used a market-based system to help curb carbon dioxide emissions, as have California and nine states in the northeastern U.S. The impact has been modest. Europe’s program was dealt a blow by the recession. Utilities in the U.S. have installed scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions and technology has made coal plants more efficient. The coal industry is promoting “clean coal” plants that remove as much as 90 percent of the carbon associated with burning. Two problems: the technology is unproven and expensive. So there’s plenty of opposition from those who argue that coal is best left in the ground. Environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest have fought to slow or block construction of terminals to aid export of coal to Asia. In May 2014, Stanford University said it would stop investing in coal companies. Students at more than 400 colleges have petitioned to follow suit. If coal use falls dramatically, it’s not clear what would replace it, or at what cost. That helps explain why developing nations use more and more of it.

The Reference Shelf

  • The International Energy Agency’s periodic update of global coal markets.
  • The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s interactive table of coal use.
  • The World Coal Association describes how prehistoric plants become coal.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse-gas emissions data and reduction proposal. The Heritage Foundation’s view.

First Published May 13, 2014

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:

Mario Parker in Chicago at

Sonja Elmquist in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at