Coal is an energy of the future. The fuel that powered the industrial revolution may have an outmoded image in the West, where it was replaced by oil and gas in the 20th century, but on a global scale it accounted for over 33% of the world’s energy consumption in 2005. Over the coming years coal could make burning a comeback as the leading energy source, since worldwide reserves are much more plentiful than those of oil, which is becoming scarce. A further advantage is that coal reserves are better distributed across the planet and are located in industrialized regions which consume the most energy, such as Europe, Russia, North America, and China. In fact, China and India open one new coal plant every week. And while coal is less practical than oil, it can still be converted into gasoline, a process used by Germany during the Second World War and subsequently by South Africa.
Coal is relatively easy to extract but, as ever, the working conditions in mines worldwide are poor. Tunnel collapses, explosions, and respiratory disease cause numerous fatalities among miners every year. In China around 5,000 workers die annually in coal mines alone.
Coal power plants pump out high levels of pollution. They also have a greater environmental impact than oil-powered plants, emitting even more greenhouse gases. By coal, we will continue to contribute to climate change long after our “black gold”—oil—has run out. Slag heaps are also a huge environmental issue and scar the landscape. In the United States, new extraction techniques entail digging up entire hillsides to access the seams directly, generating millions of tons of rubble.
Various “clean coal“ technologies are currently in development around the world, but none of them is truly practicable and none is truly clean. The most advanced involves storing released CO2 underground: a process called “sequestration.“ But this almost doubles the cost of the energy produced and is only economically viable if systems are put in place to offset carbon emissions.