Killing Coal: Why So Difficult?
Scott Montgomery on why abandoning coal is akin to replacing the circulatory system of a living body.
There’s no debate. Global coal use continues to be a major hurdle to progress on emissions, as well as pollution. The question why — why haven’t nations worldwide turned away from coal — needs serious answers. This means a calm and committed look at realities of coal in the Global South, where over 85% of consumption and coal’s long-term future now abide.
This most Shakespearean of fuels (the histories and tragedies) has remained the historically dominant source of carbon emissions since the early 19th century, a trend under no threat of change today. Indeed, were oil consumption soon to peak due to a rise of electric transport, coal’s supremacy in emissions would grow still more.
Be that as it may, the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its flagship World Energy Outlook report for 2021, stressed that all scenarios that match climate goals “feature a rapid decline in coal use.” To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, “coal use in the energy system falls by around 55%.” The IEA admits, however, that “managing the move away from coal is not simple, especially when it proceeds at the speed required in the NZE (net-zero 2050) where all unabated [non-carbon capture] coal power generation stops by 2040.”
The COP26 climate meeting, adopting the NZE goal, had the declared goal of getting a commitment from 130 nations to “abandon coal” forever. This didn’t quite happen. What did emerge were waves of head shaking and a roil of outrage when China and India, together representing 60% of global consumption, demanded an edit to the final agreement that altered “phase out” to “phase down.” But while these two nations drew the major blame, they spoke for dozens of others who are wedded to coal use as well.
A key result of COP26, then, was to confirm the coal problem. Righteous complaint, angry finger-pointing, or other forms of carbon-shaming don’t seem to work. Pleading and sarcasm from a Swedish teen, turned media darling of unqualified virtue, is not quite a match for the ambitions of rising regional and global powers. At the same time, the mirror denunciations from developing nations regarding broken promises of financial support from wealthy countries have no small legitimacy.
My purpose here, though, isn’t to rehearse these battles but to provide some useful information on why they exist. What follows is a range of points, divided into helpful categories, that help explain why it is deeply challenging — not (never) impossible — for many nations to cut back their coal dependence promptly and dramatically.
Caveat lector: to achieve this, I’ve largely left out a detailed treatment of coal’s pollution and climate impacts. Such has been discussed in abundance by many authors, often in justifiably emphatic tone. My task, instead, is to outline reasons for why such knowledge and its resultant calls for change have not had a greater impact of their own.
Geology and Much More
- It helps to begin with geology. Coal is the most widespread and abundant of the fossil fuels, present on every continent, in over 120 nations. Among the top 30 in reserves (in order, after top three U.S., Russia, Australia): China, India, Indonesia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkey, S. Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Thailand. The world’s deepest coal mine, Shakhterskaya (Ukraine), descends less than a mile. Oil/gas fields are routinely 2-3 miles below surface; many wells today are drilled 5-7 miles to total depth.
- Coal has a simple infrastructure. Mining technology is well-established. Transport is by road and railway, which serve many other purposes. No pipelines, compressors, storage tanks, refineries, are needed. If rail and roadways already exist, the time and cost to erect a power plant can be minimal, especially if simpler (subcritical) technology is used. Advanced plants (supercritical, ultra-supercritical) have higher efficiencies and pollution controls. Though 20%-30% more expensive, they yield more power and no particulate air pollution to choke cities and draw public dissent. Since 2014, China has moved to such technology for its coal plants. India is in the early stages of doing so.
- Regarding energy content, coal has major advantages over solar and wind. It can generate 40-50 times more energy per unit area, thus requiring commensurately less land. It is more reliable (no intermittency), and its facilities last longer (>40 years vs. 25-30). Decision-makers framing energy policies for their countries understand these points. They also know that subsidies can make domestic coal cheaper than any other source. Such subsidies remain widespread; though they hide the larger social costs of coal use, they bring power and employment within reach for many people, a fact political leaders view as necessary.
- Coal is itself a source of multiple fuels. These include coalbed methane, produced from shallow wells in coal seams. Such degassing has a further advantage in helping make underground mines safer. Coal can also generate liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel. Coal-to-liquids (CTL) technology is well-established and advancing. Countries with high oil imports (China, India, South Africa) have utilized CTL at industrial scale. A database on projects shows broad interest among coal-rich nations: Indonesia, Pakistan, Mozambique, Brazil, Panama, Mongolia, and Ukraine.
- The above factors have made coal especially abundant, accessible, cheap, simple, reliable, and common in developing and emerging nations. There is surging demand for electricity and industrial development in these countries. To meet such demand, more than a few of them provide some level of subsidy to keep prices affordable to the greatest number of people and businesses and to encourage use of a domestic resource.
- Use of domestic coal has existed in many of the mentioned nations for decades, often a half-century or more. As it was in the West before the mid-20th century, it has served as an all-purpose source of energy, not only for power generation and industry but, on a local basis, for heating and cooking in homes and both medium- and small-scale businesses (brick-, glass-, salt-, cement-making; restaurants, etc.). Since the 1990s, more than a billion people have gained access to electricity, dominantly from coal use (a large percentage of these people are in Asia).
- This means coal can be deeply integrated not only into a country’s economy but its sociopolitical and cultural life. In coal lies at the center of extended networks of employment, involving major industries as well as many supporting businesses and the local services these operations depend on. In total, the coal industry is labor intensive, more so if underground mining is involved. Such labor is cheap in the Global South, and coal provides many jobs, with varied levels of human capital, from mineworkers to mining engineers, mechanics, millwrights, control room operators, and more. Any massive reduction in coal will bring corresponding impacts to an entire “ecology” of businesses and employment. Political leaders, elected or not, understand this can result in loss of public support, bringing unrest, even violence.
- People in developing and emerging nations are aware, to varying degrees, of coal’s environmental problems, including climate change. Yet for a large proportion of them, this must be weighed against other truths—for example, families struggling with getting enough food, clean water, medical care (in areas where disease is prevalent), who use traditional biomass (firewood) for energy, or who have electricity for only a few hours a day or week. For these people, who number in the billions, the benefits that coal brings in the short-term, even with bad air and other pollution, very often seem more worthy than worries about the longer-term threats of climate change.
- Financing of coal plants has remained strong. This is especially true for Chinese public, commercial, and private banks, especially those involved in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But financing comes from other sources as well, such as domestic public and private sources, and private international investment. Japan and South Korea are both important backers
- As recent energy shortages have shown — the 2021 gas and wind power shortages in Europe and China, for example — coal continues to serve as a crucial backup source in cases of emergency (broadly defined). This is especially true, again, for countries with domestic coal resources (in 2021, this included rich countries, even the U.S.).
- Not to be ignored is the problem of “climate hypocrisy.” This involves rich nations, whose own use of fossil fuels remains high, demanding poorer nations reduce their use of such fuels, coal above all. At COP26, some 20 governments promised to block financing for coal plants in developing countries, while building new gas plants, oil refineries, and other facilities at home. Such “energy redlining” has created resentment for decades. It has even soured some of the will to reduce coal use. Even in Bangladesh, already suffering land loss from sea level rise and among the most vulnerable countries in the world to further such losses, growing reliance on coal for power can be rationalized by “tiny” per-capita emissions compared with the West.
- Finally, there is the issue of energy security. Import dependence for fundamental resources underlying economic activity and military strength is a top concern for governments everywhere. This is especially true for China and India, who now import more than 70% of their oil. Coal is the largest domestic source these nations have. In a period of rising international rivalry and uncertainty, they will continue to rely on it heavily, with a direct relationship to perceptions of national security.
Abandoning coal is therefore no mere matter of exchanging one technology for another. An apt metaphor instead is to replace the circulatory system of a living body. Such applies especially to places where coal has many decades of use behind it and where it has been growing as a domestic resource to advance development.
People in wealthy countries, including decision-makers, can be reluctant to accept the combined force of the realities mentioned. Deeply concerned about climate change but believing they have largely or entirely passed beyond the coal era, they may find it difficult to fully grasp what was needed for new eras of energy use to arrive. The last 250 years has repeatedly proven that energy transitions are nothing less than historical transformations. They involve deep changes in entire social systems. These systems, in fact, never fully disappear. They even remain locally dominant—consider the continued use of fuel wood and peat in some wealthy nations, and coal as well in nearly all of them.
Meanwhile, demographic data tells us that by 2030 or shortly after, the global middle class will grow by a billion people or more, nearly all of them in Asia. Most of these people will be living in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam, all countries that depend on coal for power and industry. Getting them all to cut this dependency by 40%-50% in a decade or two would be the equivalent of erasing this fuel entirely from the rest of the world.
As noted many times, coal exists at the center of a global conflict between two urgent and relentless historical demands. One of these is the inexorable force for progress in all areas of life, involving billions of the world’s poor and lower income people. On the other side is the global issue of climate change with its requirement for profound changes from the present in how such progress should be achieved. For more than two decades, these two realms of demand have set developing and emerging nations against rich nations to varying degrees. In the end, neither group, taken as a whole, has come close to matching what the current climate narrative says is required.
China and India have made statements by pushing out their net-zero pledges to 2060 and 2070, respectively. Both have plans underway to build up low- and non-carbon sources—natural gas, nuclear (fission, possibly fusion), hydro, solar, wind, and other technologies that may become commercial. This will not evict 40%-50% of their coal use by 2030; far from it. For these massively important nations, large domestic reserves have proven able to bring electricity and industry with astonishing speed to huge numbers of their people. At the same time, coal has been an enormous aid to national security in preventing such advancement from becoming the orphan to imported resources. Resources, that is, which largely come from nations not shy about wielding them for political purposes.
In the end, prohibitionist ideas and accusations are unlikely to provide a practical solution to the climate problem. In its own breakneck rush to modernize, China has provided the world with both a successful and deadly example, one that India and a number of other countries are partly repeating at a slower pace. Coal shaming and broken promises do not appear the best approach to helping them alter course.
Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.
 In truth, emissions of CO2 were highest for coal from the early 1800s to 1968, after which they were higher for oil use until 2005. In that year, China’s surging coal consumption put this fuel first in emissions once again, where it has remained.