Why coal is the woat

The worst of all time, that is

Hi,

Simpler one today, but no less important. We’re going back to the basics to discuss why coal is the worst of all time (i.e, the ‘woat’). For a variety of reasons.

The newsletter in 50 words: While a handful of countries dominate coal consumption, whether or not those countries and the world as a whole successfully wean off it is probably the single best barometer of whether all the proverbial energy behind climate work and energy transitions is ‘winning.’ And the faster the better.

DEEP DIVE

Every time I see statistics about how coal consumption or production is at all-time highs (which I often, unfortunately, do), this is the vision of the future that pops into my head.

OK. Now that I have your attention, let’s proceed.

We’ve talked a lot about complexity so far this year. Complexity surrounding Biden’s decision to halt new LNG exports, for instance. Or the complexity of the energy transition in general. 

Odds are the world may already feel sufficiently complex to you. While making space and building the capacity to get comfortable with complexity is a high value endeavor, sometimes, we also want things to be simple. I get that. Even if acting on simple things isn’t always straightforward.

A recent note from a reader (shoutout Raymond) asked “How helpful is it to shake our heads and say ‘You don't realize how complex it is…’ and ‘We can't just pull the plug …’”

I don’t have a neat answer to that question. What I do know is that it certainly can be helpful to return to more inarguable truths from time to time. At least one such truth exists in the energy transition from my vantage point. It’s that coal needs to go. Here’s why coal is the worst of all time.

Why coal is the worst

Here’s my laundry list. At the most basic level, burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than burning other fossil fuels or non-fossil-fuel sources, like biomass, does. Carbon dioxide is by no means the only thing we need to consider when we think about climate change and global warming. That said, over the long-haul, carbon dioxide is the biggest warming driver.

As a young boy, I would have been very excited by the size of this excavator. As an adult, little looks worse to me than this open pit coal mine. (Shutterstock)

Further, as we expand to consider other greenhouse gasses, as we noted in our LNG piece, like natural gas, coal has its own methane problem. Something I don’t see discussed much is that coal mines themselves are a major source of methane emissions. Problematically, this is true whether or not mines remain operational. Old, abandoned coal mines often continue to vent methane into the atmosphere long after they’ve stopped expanding and operating. 

Coal mines are the fifth or sixth largest source of human-caused methane emissions, depending on how you draw your boxes around different methane emissions sources. Measurement of global methane emissions is also in its own technological renaissance; occasionally, new studies posit that coal mine methane emissions are even higher than previously thought. Burning coal also produces nitrous oxide emissions, another super-polluting greenhouse gas.

We can continue in this greenhouse gas vein further. Transporting coal accounts for a massive amount of global maritime and rail transportation. 1.2 billion metric tons of coal get moved on ships every year. Unfortunately these numbers are still going up. But if we reduced coal consumption, we’d unlock a virtuous cycle of reducing emissions from transportation too. 

As I’m wont to do these days, it’s also important to move beyond discussion of greenhouse gasses to consider the wider range of climate and environmental impacts of coal. Coal mining is a major driver of global air pollution; burning coal spews a lot of fine particulate matter, as well as hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, arsenic, cadmium, and lots of things you decidedly don’t want to breathe in. While climate change will present challenges for a lot of life on Earth, air pollution is today a more significant and acute risk to humans (and many animals, too). Air pollution accounts for more than 8 million ‘excess deaths’ annually, which is a bit of an abstracted way of saying ‘deaths that shouldn’t happen and are avoidable.’ That’s as many deaths as are attributable annually to smoking across the world. Burning coal is kind of like subjecting everyone near a coal power plant to secondhand smoke, all the time. 

We can also move beyond impacts that are fundamentally airborne, i.e., those having to do with the atmosphere and the sky. Coal mines are an environmental disaster for top soil, ground water, the ecosystems that expanding mines encroach on, and so on. In terms of other acute risks, I’d also call out that dozens of coal miners die in accidents almost every year. In December, an accident at a Chinese coal mine killed twelve people. More people have died in coal mining accidents alone than have ever died at the hand of nuclear accidents.

Further still, think nuclear waste is bad? Waste from coal mining and combustion has historically precipitated far worse environmental disasters. Perhaps the most notable of which came in 2008, when a coal ash pond in Tennessee burst through a dam, releasing more than 1.5 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry, a byproduct of coal combustion. The spill covered up to 300 acres of surrounding land, burying homes and decimating waterways and rivers. It was the largest industrial waste accident in U.S. history, bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. A lot of people got really sick in the wake of the spill; some 30+ former workers tasked with cleaning up the mess have died and 200 more or are sick. There are thousands of other comparable coal ash ponds across the U.S. Here’s to hoping none of them spill.

Finally, from a tech standpoint, it’s also worth noting that combined cycle natural gas power plants, which use both a gas and a steam turbine to produce electricity, are up to twice as efficient as coal power plants in terms of their ability to translate the potential energy of their fuel source into electricity. Plus, using gas to make electricity takes up less space than coal does, especially when you factor in the footprint of coal mining. 

I trust you’re getting the idea at this point. I will caveat that I’d be the last person to characterize countries reliant on coal as ‘backwards.’ People everywhere deserve access to electricity, which is what coal countries are after. They’re not trying to ruin their air or drive global warming. Plus, the U.S. still uses coal for 20% of its power gen needs. The point is we can all collectively aspire higher.

And yet… coal use is still growing

Unfortunately, globally, coal production, consumption, and even things like how much coal the U.S. exports are at or close to all-time highs.

It’s true that coal use in electricity production in the U.S. and many European countries has fallen dramatically. That’s good. Some of it owes to accelerating adoption of renewable energy. A lot of it also owes to the U.S. tapping more of its natural gas resources and exporting more LNG. We won’t get back into that rabbit hole here. Here’s the U.S.:

And here’s the E.U.:

Still, coal demand, especially in Asia, is growing sufficiently fast to offset reductions on other continents. Coal demand and production globally is at all time highs. In 2023, IEA updated its Net Zero 2050 projections, as it does every year. Forecast coal demand in 2030 is already 32% higher than it was in their first projections, which came out in 2021. We often underestimate the adoption rates of new low-carbon technologies, like solar, batteries, or EVs. Unfortunately, sometimes we underestimate the stickiness of fuels like coal and diesel, too. 

One thing is, coal is also quite concentrated. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. Six countries use 80% of the world’s coal. Four of them are in Asia and Africa, including China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. Those are increasingly the biggest levers – whether positive or negative – for emissions reduction work globally. Unfortunately, right now, these countries are all amping up their coal use, not cutting it. Indonesia, one of the world’s largest coal exporters, recently recorded 2024 year-to-date seaborne exports that were 24% higher than 2023 values

The coal culprits across Asia (listed by share of coal use in their power sectors)

The fact that we haven’t, collectively, peaked coal consumption frustrates me greatly. It’s one of the more sobering realities in climate work. The U.S. and the E.U. can make as much exponential energy transition progress as they want, but it won’t matter if it doesn’t translate to Asia. Perhaps the best role the West can play in decarbonization is not in iterative emissions reductions, but rather in providing palpable proof points that climate and energy tech deployment can actually work and make economic sense.

It’s also worth noting that the share of power generation still dominated by coal in Asia is a big reason that there’s so much future demand for liquefied natural gas. As the U.S. walks back future projections for LNG export expansion beyond 2030, other countries, like Qatar, are happily investing even more to boost their export capabilities. They forecast robust demand for gas as Asian countries try to transition off coal for decades to come.

To close, in a recent roundtable podcast conversation with Quincy Lee and Ramez Naam, Quincy made a trenchant observation here: 

Historically, as new energy sources have come online, the previous energy source didn’t diminish all that much. People still burn a ton of wood, even after the onset of coal. And then after the onset of natural gas, people still burn a bunch of coal. Same thing with nuclear… Unless we have a production board type of system to solve the climate change and energy transition challenges more intensely, there could be a lot of emissions.

Said differently, the energy transition and revolutions we’re attempting in this century have to accomplish something that hasn’t really been accomplished previously. New energy sources have to grow availability and drastically displace legacy energy sources. Historically, they’ve mostly done the former.

The net-net

The deeper you dig into any complex subject, like energy transition work, the more complex it typically gets. As Brian Cox (the physicists, not the actor) once opined:

You dig deeper and it gets more and more complicated, and you get confused, and it's tricky and it's hard…

Again, that’s why I chose today to come home to an ironclad axiom. When I think about the energy transition and climate work, mine is, well, phase out coal.

Sure, there are countless other things that need doing, too. But if coal isn’t off grids globally by, say, 2050, I’d question whether we had our priorities straight.

OTHER COOL STUFF

Quick aside. A big reason I (and likely you) care about climate work is to reestablish harmony between humans and the rest of the Earth, nature, and all beings. I love spending time in the wild. In order to do this work, however, I spend a lot of my time behind screens. Bit of a disconnect there…

One way I manage this is to take deep, dedicated time away to rejuvenate and physically connect with the natural world. If that calls to you, my friend, Dom Francks, is offering a wonderful pathway for you. The VIVIFY Regenerative Leadership Program is a wilderness-based coaching program built around an off-trail backpacking trip in the High Sierra of California, with abundant relevance to anyone working in climate and energy tech. 

Check out VIVIFY here. Or respond to this email if you’re curious and keen to discuss.

Byeee,

– Nick