illegal coal miner staring into the camera

Is coal sustainable?

When the Victorians discovered coal at the start of the industrial revolution, it changed the world. But was it a sustainable resource? Back then, they didn’t even think to ask the question.

In the 1880s, when coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories, it was a revelation. Limitless cheap electricity and engines that could pull carriages of goods and people for mile after mile was an economic miracle. 

Coal provided power the Victorians believed could take them around the world, and it did. They didn’t contemplate that such a remarkable and profitable resource would ever run out. 

There was so much of it in the ground and, if you went to other parts of the world, you would find it everywhere. 

Coal would be the source of power forever. 

Even when black gold created new opportunities as a liquid fuel, the wonder of coal kept its shine thanks to electricity. 

The Edison Electric Light Station in London was the first coal-fired power station built in 1882. By 2019, there were an estimated 2,425 coal-fired power plants globally. More dramatic than this 140-year growth in the use of coal is that 50% of these power stations came online since the year 2000.

Here is what happened to coal production after the men in top hats who went in horse drawn carriages to the first ballrooms lit by electric lights…

Today, of course, fossil fuels are less shiny given their impact on climate. Those 2,425 power stations emit around 15 billion tCO2e. A rush is on to alternative fuel sources without greenhouse gas emissions for some stability in the planet’s atmosphere. 

Even China, which gobbled up most of the growth in coal use since 2000, is cutting back with a commitment to stop funding coal power overseas. 

“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” 

President Xi Jinping, September 2021

There is talk that we have reached or even passed ‘peak coal’, given the global coal consumption was highest in 2013, and has dropped slightly by the end of the 2010s. The peak of coal’s share in the global energy mix was in 2008, when coal accounted for 30% of global energy production. 

The Victorians built an industrial economy with no notion it would ever end and not a thought for sustainability. 

Why would they? 

The resource was as big as a pile of one thousand dollar bills for breakfast

Photo by Kirill Shavlo on Unsplash

Unlimited coal

In the beginning, coal use was modest. Just a handful of steam engines, power stations, and some fireplaces generating smog. Globalisation was in the future, and the population in need of power was a little over 1 billion.

It is hard to consider shortage when demand began modestly, and supply was easy enough to dig up out of the ground.

It turns out that if the Victorians had used coal at the rates we do today, all the reserves would be gone by now. 

A few thousand TWh of energy increased by an order of magnitude through the 20th century. Then the 21st century began and China more than doubled its coal production.

Now that endless resource is coming to an end. Not because of supply, for there are still coal reserves in the ground, but because of demand.

Global coal consumption is estimated to have fallen by 7%, or over 500 million tonnes, between 2018 in 2020. A decline of this size over a two-year period is unprecedented in IEA records, which go back as far as 1971.

International Energy Authority, Coal 2020 Report

How to detect sustainability

The trick to seeing whether something is sustainable, used without depletion of supply, is to look long and understand whether one of three things happen when the resource is exploited:

  1. use depletes the known stock
  2. Use alters the capacity for renewal or 
  3. Use generates unwanted side effects (externalities). 

Coal, of course, is a non-renewable resource for two of these reasons. Mining reduces the stock, and burning coal releases greenhouse gases that are an externality (a cost of use not paid by the user).

The time it takes to make coal is way beyond anything that human lifetimes can understand. Coal is not renewable; we mine it. 

Coal reserves are depleted but not to the point that they have run out. It may feel like the resource is sustainable if the reserves are large relative to extraction — there is a similar issue with groundwater — but extraction is called mining for a reason.

Coal is also unstainable because it has unwanted consequences of use. GHG emissions that contribute to an undesirable change in climate.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Coal is part of the massive fossil fuel subsidy to humanity. 

Burning coal and oil gives us the unprecedented horsepower to alter nature, boost primary production into food, and manufacture all manner of stuff.

As a resource, it is not sustainable because it will run out before more is made. But for society and economies, coal can be replaced with other energy sources. So most of what coal does is sustainable. It just means finding the horsepower somewhere else.

Externalities from coal are chronic. 

But an externality is only a factor in sustainability if it prevents use or alters the capacity for renewal. GHGs from coal-burning would do this over millennia, way beyond our planning horizon.

Meantime we are stuck with the giant energy subsidy hole we dug for ourselves.

Hero image from photo by Amir Arabshahi on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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