Is the World Ready to Move Away From Coal?
Coal use declined by 3% globally last year. On the surface, that may not sound like a large feat, but experts predict that the downward trend will continue. This particularly carbon-intensive energy source is beginning to fall out of favor as its alternatives, including nuclear power, natural gas and renewable energy, are recognized as cleaner and potentially safer sources of energy. As the alternatives become more cost-effective, global efforts to reduce coal burning and consumption continue from health and environmental advocates and governments.
The coronavirus pandemic has again highlighted the need and also provided a unique opportunity for countries to reduce their dependence on coal. As several countries shut coal plants for good in the wake of the pandemic, some experts are predicting the coal industry will never recover in our post-COVID-19 world.
How Does Coal Affect Human Health?
The burning of coal emits a slew of harmful pollutants that are damaging to human health. These include carbon dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, arsenic and mercury. Exposure to these pollutants can have majorly adverse effects on respiratory health, cardiovascular health and the human nervous system, leading to an increased risk of lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses and a greater risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Many Countries Are Kicking Coal to the Curb...
Earlier in 2020, Britain stopped using coal completely as an energy source. As of this writing, no coal has been burnt for the purposes of electricity there since April 9, 2020. Ten years ago, the country relied on coal to power 40% of its electricity.
...But Others Are Still Using (Literal) Tons
The amount of coal that China uses accounts for half of the world's coal consumption. India and the United States rank second and third, respectively, in the same category but trail well behind. China's coal consumption is almost four times as much as India's and over six times as much as the United States'. In 2018, China consumed 1.91 billion metric tons oil equivalent of coal — a measurement that represents the amount of energy released by burning a ton of crude oil and compares it to the energy released by burning coal. India consumed 452.2 million metric tons oil equivalent, and the United States consumed 317 million metric tons. The fourth-highest coal-consuming country was Japan at 117.5 million metric tons oil equivalent.
Will COVID-19 Lead the World to Ditch Coal?
Much of the world has already reduced its dependence on coal, if not eliminated it altogether. Without India and China on board, however, global efforts can only go so far in reducing pollution. Even if every other country eliminated coal usage altogether, it would still only result in a 40% drop in coal consumption at best. While this could still result in a significant decrease in associated health risks and greenhouse gas emissions, it wouldn't end the industry entirely, and the harmful effects of mining and using coal would continue to impact various populations.