Coal takes many millions of years to form. Forests in low-lying wetland areas – at a time when the atmosphere was too toxic for us to breathe and the plants were supersized compared to today – were eventually flooded and buried under soil. The plant matter decayed in swamps and bogs, turning into peat. Exposed to the pressure and heat of being buried for millions of years, it became coal.
Types of coal
The different types of coal that are used today are characterised by their quality (carbon content) and age, which determines how much of the plant matter has transformed into carbon. The older the coal, the higher the carbon content. The carbon content further depends on the type of vegetation that the coal originates from, how deep under the ground it is buried, and the temperature and pressure it was exposed to.
Coal holds pollutants such as mercury, sequestered from the atmosphere by the plants that later became coal. When the coal is mined and burnt, these toxins are released. There are two types of hard coal: bituminous coal and anthracite. Anthracite is the oldest type of coal and has the highest carbon content. It’s quite rare – only one percent of the world’s coal reserves are anthracite. Therefore, when we speak about hard coal, we are usually referring to bituminous coal, which makes up over half of the world’s coal reserves. It’s black and shiny, and can be used in two ways: as ‘thermal coal’ for energy generation, cement manufacturing, and other industrial activities; or as ‘coking coal’ (also called ‘metallurgical coal’) mixed with iron ore to make steel and iron. Hard coal was given its name by locomotive engineers who used it to power trains.
Today, 30 percent of hard coal is coking coal, used for steel production in the form of ‘coke’, and 70 percent is thermal coal, used for electricity generation.
Despite international climate negotiations, pledges to reduce emissions, and knowledge of the terrible social and ecological impacts of hard coal, governments and companies continue to build new hard coal power stations. Worldwide, power capacity to burn hard coal has doubled since 2000 to over 2,000GW. A further 200GW is being built and 300GW is planned, while 268GW have closed across Europe and the US.
To keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, worldwide coal use for all purposes would need to fall by around 80 percent this decade.
The route of hard coal
Unlike lignite coal, which is younger, heavier, of lower quality, less suitable for transport and storage, and thus usually burnt very close to where it is extracted, hard coal often travels around the world before it ends up in the power station where electricity is generated. European hard coal is buried very deep underground, and its mining is politically contested and expensive. Many European hard coal mines have been closed down in the last few years. Much of the coal that is being burnt in Europe travels from far away areas such as Russia, Colombia, and the US.
Just like the consequences of climate change, which disproportionately affect people in the Global South, the hard coal industry thus increasingly ‘outsources’ its harmful effects to people who don’t benefit from the cheap electricity that coal burning – supported and subsidised by many governments – generates. Coal thus also represents the imperial and neo-colonial way of life in the Global North. Yet, few people are aware of the bloody origins of the coal that is imported into Europe.
Hard coal mining often goes hand-in-hand with the displacement and killing of local communities, as the example of Colombia illustrates; the pollution of their air, water, and soil through fine dust and poisonous heavy metals; and the irreversible destruction of entire ecosystems (see chapter five). With the growth of the transnational climate (justice) and anti-coal movements, linking up with local anti-mining struggles which are often led by indigenous peoples and women of colour, the need to end coal has arrived in the public discourse, the media, and the political establishment. Yet, in many countries, the coal industry continues to work hard to protect its profits and to delay coal phase-outs. Politicians – sometimes with very close ties to the coal industry – continue to support them, often in return for lucrative board positions or party donations.
The industry is especially invested in trying to stop the closure of power stations and demand high compensation payments for ‘lost income’ – a demand that is increasingly playing out in the courtroom.
It is on us to increase the pressure and make coal phase-out a reality!