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 have helped lift millions out of poverty in China, India and other emerging nations. Coal is more accessible than other energy sources, easier to transport and simpler to store. There’s more to its appeal than economics; worried eastern Europeans see their plentiful domestic supplies as an alternative to Russian oil and gas. Efforts to curb coal use have proliferated. Nevertheless, coal generates about 40 percent of the world’s electricity and is poised to dethrone 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 the most of it, nourishing growth and choking cities. China, Japan and India are the largest importers; Indonesia, Australia, Russia and the U.S. are the biggest exporters. Germany’s experience illustrates the challenge of quitting coal. In 2011, its coal use rose to the highest level in four years after it shut eight nuclear power stations following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. German coal consumption grew 7 percent more in the next two years and at least six coal plants are scheduled to begin operating by the end of 2015. 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 coal-fired power plants, a trend the government is trying to accelerate. The country will retire 23 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity in 2015, enough to power 16 million homes. Still, coal will generate more than a quarter of U.S. electricity in 2030. The International Energy Agency projects that coal use will grow 8.3 percent annually in 10 Southeast Asian nations and 6.2 percent a year in Latin America. India is on pace to supplant the U.S. as the world’s second-biggest coal addict.

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 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. 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 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 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. Cheap oil has helped coal producers by lowering diesel costs to run equipment. 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. In May 2014, Stanford University said it would stop investing in coal companies. If coal use falls, it’s not clear what would replace it, or at what cost.

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