Resource Snapshot (2): Coal

The World Resources Forum Secretariat continues the series “Resource Snapshots” with coal. You can learn in less than 2 minutes the key issues of this fossile energy carrier.

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Applications and use

Coal is one of the most important resources in producing electricity. About 40 percent of the world’s electricity demand are provided through coal[fn]U.S. Energy Information Administration (2011): Electric Power Monthly. Online: (last access: 08.08.2011).[/fn]. It is also used in steel, cement and aluminium production and as well as liquid fuel. Coal also finds use in the chemical and pharmaceutical sector and furthermore in the paper industry. There are a lot of things in which coal or coal by-products can be found, e.g. in soaps, dyes or plastics[fn]World Coal Association (2005): The Coal Resource – A comprehensive overview of coal. Online: (last access: 05.08.2011).[/fn]. In 2010 worldwide coal consumption has been at a number of about 7.3 billion tons[fn]BP (2011): Statistical Review of World Energy. Online: (last access: 04.08.2011). [/fn].


Two methods are applied in coal production: surface and underground mining. Leading country in producing coal is China, followed by the United States. Other important coal suppliers are India, Australia, South Africa, and Russia. These six countries are responsible for about 80 percent of global coal production, China accounting for 43 percent alone[fn]Höök, M.; Zittel, W.; Schindler, J.; Aleklett, K. (2010): Global coal production outlooks based on a logistic model. In: Fuel, Volume 89, Issue 11, p. 3546-3558.  [/fn]. The main part of mined coal stays in the producing country itself, just about 20 percent are available for the worldwide coal market[fn]World Coal Association (2005): The Coal Resource – A comprehensive overview of coal. Online: (last access: 05.08.2011).[/fn].


Proved recoverable world coal reserves are estimated to be about 860 billion tons which are divided into bituminous coal (405 billion), sub-bituminous (260 billion), and lignite (195 billion). Almost 60 percent of these reserves are located in the U.S., China and the Russian Federation[fn]World Energy Council (2010): Survey of Energy Resources – Coal. Online: (last access: 04.08.2011).[/fn]. According to bp worldwide coal reserves will last for about 118 years at current consumption. But as global demand for coal is steadily growing – growth rate in 2010 was 7.6 percent – limitations are much stronger.

Recent price developments

From 1990 to 2003 the Northwest Europe marker price never exceeded 45 $ per ton. In 2008 the coal price on the Northwest European market reached its peak with 147.67 $ per ton due to the worldwide financial crisis. In 2009 it recovered to a value of 70.66 $ per ton, but in 2010 the Northwest European market coal price rose to 92.50 $ per ton[fn]BP (2011): Statistical Review of World Energy. Online: (last access: 04.08.2011). [/fn].

Environmental problems


There are several environmental problems that occur along the coal production chain.

Mining coal has visible impacts on the environment as it requires a lot of surface, removes big amounts of vegetation and destroys the soil[fn]Fthenakis, V.; Chul Kim, H. (2009): Land use and electricity generation: a life-cycle analysis. In: Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 13, Issues 6-7, p. 1465-1474. [/fn]. Mountaintop removal is one method of surface coal mining that is intensely discussed (see
Various gases are produced in coal production processes, including the environmentally harming CO2 and methane. Furthermore sulphur and nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain, are also emitted[fn]Miller, B. (2011): The Effect of Coal Usage on Human Health and the Environment. In: Clean Coal Engineering Technology, p. 85-132. [/fn].
As some countries draw a big amount of their electricity out of coal (e.g. 94 percent of Poland’s electricity come out of coal industry), methods for reducing coal’s impact on the environment must be found; a technology called CCS (carbon capture and storage) is one of them[fn]World Coal Association (2005): The Coal Resource – A comprehensive overview of coal. Online: (last access: 05.08.2011).[/fn].

Social problems

According to the Clean Air Task Force over 13,000 deaths per year in the U.S. can be led back to particle pollution caused by coal production[fn]Clean Air Task Force (2010): Death and Disease from Power Plants. Online: (last access: 29.04.2011).[/fn]. Working in coal mines is a dangerous business, particularly in underground mining accidents occur every now and then; in 2005 an explosion in a Chinese coal mine killed over 200 people. More than 5,000 people have been killed in mining accidents in 2004 in China, it accounts for 80 percent of deaths in mining accidents[fn]BBC News (2005): Chinese mine explosion kills 203. Online: (last access: 19.05.2011).[/fn].


Renewable energies such as wind, solar, and water power are alternatives to coal. Using renewable energy sources brings advantages such as lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear energy production can be an alternative to coal as well, but it carries a certain risk for humans and the environment, which became obvious at least in March 2011 with Fukushima.
In cement production chemical wastes and waste fuels can be used as a replacement for coal[fn]Murray, A.; Price, L. (2008): Use of Alternative Fuels in Cement Manufacture: Analysis of Fuel Characteristics and Feasibility for Use in the Chinese Cement Sector. Online: (last access: 03.05.3011).[/fn].


As climate change initiatives are on the rise, coal is increasingly discussed. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says coal consumption will rise up to almost 10 billion tons in 2035[fn]U.S. Energy Information Administration (2010): International Energy Outlook. Online: (last access: 05.08.2011).[/fn], but the high CO2 emissions that come along with coal use are aspects in disfavour of a growing use of coal. Furthermore security of supply is a matter of heated debate, as with growing consumption, reserves won’t last for 118 years.
Speaking of supply, Europe may face problems since many European countries already are coal importers. Countries in Latin America and Africa will probably face shortages as they have hardly any coal reserves (except for South Africa)[fn]Dittmar, M. (2011): What does the future hold for nuclear power? In: A World of Science, Volume 9, Number 3, July-September 2011. Online: (last access: 09.08.2011).[/fn].
We can either protect the environment and future generations from dirty coal by reducing coal consumption and use it more efficiently or we continue like that, use up all coal and contribute even more to climate change.


WRF Resource Snapshot (2) has been compiled by Riccarda Sutter. She would greatly appreciate corrections, suggestions or other remarks, which could improve this document. Suggestions for which other resources to choose are also welcome. Riccarda can be reached at .