5.9 Energy Sources: Coal

Author: Qiutian Wang

ABSTRACT: This article will analyze the use of coal worldwide, the environmental impact, and possible solutions.

Image credit: ourworldindata.org


What is coal, how we use it, and why we need it?

Coal is the most abundant fuel fossil in the world. Its main uses include generating electricity, supporting the production of cement and steel, as well as serving as an important factor in a lot of metallurgical processes. For electricity alone, it is credited for generating 37% of the global electricity (Worldcoal) and is envisioned to continue to be the largest source of electricity in the foreseeable future.

Image credit: ourworldindata.org

The world’s dependence on coal is largely due to the price advantage and the abundancy of its resources. According to the current coal consumption situation, even the proven coal reserves could be enough for the earth to use for more than one hundred years. Apart from that, the system for mining and processing coal has been constructed very well in the past, which makes coal even more affordable. According to Rohit Chandra, who earned a doctoral degree in energy policy at Harvard, specializing in coal in India said, “The main reason why coal sticks around is, we built it already,” (Sengupta).

What is the problem using coal?

Even though coal has brought us countless advantages, it is hard to ignore the pollution that has been made in the massive use of this material.

Image credit: ourworldindata.org

Coal is the biggest source of carbon emissions of all times. Despite the efforts made to reduce the emissions and although the percentage did experience a significant drop, it still hovers around 40% of all the CO2 emissions currently. As a result, it directly contributes to intense global warming and other local climate change, such as the pm2.5 pollution in China.

What makes the situation even worse is the world’s stubborn dependence on coal. If we were to see it from another angle, except for the fact that people have gotten used to the cheap and efficient way of generating power, there are also systematic factors underlying. Companies that rely on powerful governments require cheap energy to support their rapid growth. In the meantime, the participation of banks and multiple other interest groups has also pushed the energy issue to the point of profit. Generally speaking, why coal still sticks around is complex to explain and it involves many aspects of society. But from my point of view, I would compare it to a “bad habit”.

How to improve? What are the possible solutions?

The key to the solution is to either transform the process to be less polluted, or to find alternatives to reduce the coal consumption, even substitute it for good. A range of technological options which improve the environmental performance of coal are called “Clean coal technologies” (CCTs). These technologies focus on carbon capturing, using and storing, etc., for the countries that still depend on coal as an energy source, and will greatly reduce the CO2 emissions.

There are also proposals to tax the CO2 emissions in order to limit the pollution. Apart from that, renewable energy options such as wind and solar power could also substitute part of the coal uses. The problem is, they rely on natural conditions which have uncertainties and limits. Also, the equipment and maintenance that are required could be costly.

Summary: It is objectively impossible to completely replace the coal industry in a short period of time. The world is too dependent on it, and there are too few alternatives with prices too high. We can only reduce the environmental cost of using coal as much as possible, and hope that one day technology will bring new solutions to the table.


“Clean Coal Technologies.” World Coal Association, 2 Feb. 2021, www.worldcoal.org/clean-coal-technologies/.

Mathieu, Edouard, et al. Our World in Data, ourworldindata.org/.

Sengupta, Somini. “The World Needs to Quit Coal. Why Is It So Hard?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/11/24/climate/coal-global-warming.html.

Tedford, Deborah. “Why We Still Mine Coal.” NPR, NPR, 8 Apr. 2010, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125694190.

Walker, Simon. “World Distribution of Coal.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 13 Nov. 2020, www.britannica.com/science/coal-fossil-fuel/World-distribution-of-coal.

“Why We Need to Quit Coal.” Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org/why_we_need_to_quit_coal/.


Qiutian Wang is a fourth-year student in Interior Design Major at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has been developing interest and absorbing knowledge about sustainability from the course taught by Lloyd Alter and is practicing a more sustainable lifestyle at the moment.

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