Is the World Ready to Move Away From Coal?

By David NaarLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 1:50:48 PM ET
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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.

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Living near a coal plant has also been associated with a higher risk of asthma-related hospital visits and attacks. A report from the U.S. National Institutes of Health confirmed there’s a correlation between coal plants shutting down in an area and the number of asthma-related hospital visits in that area decreasing drastically.

A report from a coalition of environmental organizations called End Coal estimates that over 800,000 premature deaths around the world each year are attributed to coal pollution. Most of the deaths occur in the countries that rely most heavily on coal for energy consumption.

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Coal undoubtedly affects the communities where it’s mined and burned, but it’s impacting the health of people and nature on a global scale as well. Coal releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned than other fossil fuels such as petroleum and natural gas. As a result, it contributes more to climate change on a per-unit-of-energy-produced basis. As we move away from coal and replace it with cleaner energy sources, we should see a net decrease in overall emissions. This, along with the impacts on human health and air quality, is why many countries are looking to move away from coal as an energy source completely.

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.

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England was one of the first countries to begin widespread coal usage for energy but also suffered dramatic consequences as a result of it. In 1952, airborne pollutants derived from the burning of coal combined with unusually cold weather and windless conditions to create The Great Smog. A thick layer of smog coated the city of London, leading as many as 100,000 people to fall ill and causing as many as 12,000 deaths. That it would take nearly 70 years following this event for the country to finally eliminate coal from its energy mix speaks to how reliant England was on this type of fossil fuel.

In 2014, The province of Ontario in Canada eliminated coal from its energy mix altogether as well. At its peak, coal powered 25% of the province's total electricity. Experts have referred to this as the "single largest GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions reduction action on the continent." The rest of Canada plans to eliminate the use of coal for energy altogether by 2030.

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In 2017, a group of 20 countries agreed to phase out coal by 2030. The group includes Germany, Japan, South Korea and Belgium, which hasn't burned any coal since 2016. Austria also closed its last coal plant in April of 2020. But when it comes to coal, there are three major consumers, and these admirable efforts to reduce global coal consumption can only go so far without the big three on board.

...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.

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Where exactly is all that coal going? As of 2018, coal accounted for 59% of China's electricity consumption and supplies 72% of India's total electricity mix. Of the three biggest coal consumers, the United States is the least reliant. Twelve years ago, the United States relied on coal for 45% of its electricity. That number is now below 25% and continuing to fall. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world's three biggest coal consumers are three of the lowest-ranked countries in terms of air quality.

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.

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The motivation the rest of the world feels to reduce its reliance on coal hasn’t yet taken hold in China or India, but it's possible that this could change with some different incentives and motivation in place — and, perhaps surprisingly, the coronavirus may be a key to this. A study out of Harvard has shown that air pollution exacerbates COVID-19. The study found that even a minuscule increase of particulate matter in the air led to a 15% increase in COVID-19-related deaths. These particles may also act as transmission vehicles for the virus, spreading it more easily in areas where pollution particles are more highly concentrated. The study concluded that our efforts to curtail not only the spread of COVID-19 but also the potential outbreak of future viruses will need to take into consideration the impacts of air pollution.

China and India's air-quality ratings consistently rank as some of the worst in the world. If these countries are to continue to aim to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or lessen the chances of future outbreaks of the virus, improving air quality by reducing coal production and burning is a strategy they may opt to deploy.

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