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Coal's problem is not climate change

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U.S. coal companies blame climate campaigners and the Obama administration for waging a war on coal that has cost thousands of jobs and threatened struggling mining communities.

But coal’s long-term problems stem not from politics but from physical properties that make it an inferior source of energy compared with oil, gas and (arguably) renewables.

Coal has been losing the “war” for market share since the middle of the 20th century as other sources of energy have become cheaper and more abundant.

Rising energy consumption in advanced economies and emerging markets masked coal’s relative decline in the second half of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st.

But as energy consumption has reached a plateau in developed countries, coal demand has started to decline in absolute and relative terms in the more modern economies.

Consumption has continued to grow in poorer countries, where coal has played a crucial role in making electricity available for the first time to hundreds of millions of households.

But the same problems that ensured coal’s replacement in the advanced economies will gradually lead to its replacement in emerging markets as well.


Coal’s displacement by other sources of energy is part of a“grand energy transition” that has seen the dominant energy source shift successively from wood to charcoal, coal and oil.

The precise dates vary slightly from country to country, but coal started to become an important source of energy on a global scale just before 1850 (“Energy transitions: history, requirements, prospects", Smil, 2010).

Traditional biofuels such as wood and corn stalks continued to dominate the global energy system until 1900, when they were finally overtaken in importance by fast-growing coal consumption.

Coal remained the dominant energy source until the 1960s, when it was overtaken by oil (“Global primary energy consumption, 1800-2015”, Our World in Data, 2017).

But in recent years, natural gas consumption has been growing faster, and gas is set to overtake oil as the single largest source of primary energy within the next decade.

Predicting transitions beyond natural gas is fraught with uncertainty but climate........

© Japan Today