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The global value of coal

World Coal,

This is the first in a series of monthly columns that will deal with the social, economic and environmental benefits of more broadly utilising the world's most important energy resource - coal. By 2030, global energy demand will increase 40%. Electricity demand will grow 74%. Coal is the only energy source with the abundance, accessibility, affordability and versatility to meet the scale of this burgeoning demand. As billions of people strive to move into the modern age, energy deprivation is a dark spectre that haunts the world. At least 2 billion people have inadequate access to electric power. Another 1.5 billion have no electricity at all. In other words, 12 times the population of the USA either lacks adequate power or has none whatsoever. Hundreds upon hundreds of millions toil grimly in the dark and only coal has the muscle to bring the benefits of electricity at this level of magnitude.

Reserves and supply

Coal accounts for about 65% of the world's fossil fuel resources. There are 800 billion t of coal reserves distributed across more than 100 countries. Oil and natural gas reserves are not only much smaller but also are concentrated in the hands of a few politically unstable nations (e.g. Iran). Further, international supply lines of oil and gas to consuming nations are expensive and vulnerable. Coal, on the other hand, has large reserves within relatively close proximity to major population centres. China, India and the USA have 42% of the world's population but these countries also have 50% of the world's coal.

For these reasons, coal utilisation is here to stay, and grow. In 2007, coal accounted for 26% of global energy production but by 2030 it will account for 29%. Just as importantly, in 2007 about 41% of our electricity was generated from coal but in 2030 that figure will approach 45%. To put the magnitude of that increase in perspective, the International Energy Agency projects that coal-based generation will increase 7000 billion KW hours by 2030, the equivalent electricity consumption of two European Unions.


The bulk of this increased utilisation of coal will be centered in developing Asia, particularly China and India. China, for instance, plans to increase its coal production in Xingjian Province alone by 1.2 billion tpy by 2020. This dramatic increase is roughly equivalent to all the coal currently produced in the entire USA. China will not only utilise this coal to increase electricity production by 147%, but will also utilise coal to produce liquid fuel, substitute natural gas and chemicals. Further, as China moves 300 million people to the cities over the next decade, the demand for steel, and consequently coal,  will increase accordingly. China already uses almost 50% of the world's steel, a figure destined to grow as the urbanisation process proceeds apace.

Further, China's coal consumption will be increasingly clean. The "Large Substituting for Small Program" (LSS) means that over 114,000 MW of small and inefficient coal units will be decommissioned. More than 112,000 MW of Supercritical and Ultra-Supercritical generating capacity will be built, resulting in significantly fewer emissions across the board. Finally, China is proceeding with the development of GreenGen, the first in a wave of zero emission coal power plants.


As India turns its gaze eastward, the socioeconomic benefits that coal has brought to China are readily apparent. India has more than 7% of the world's coal and is preparing to utilise that resource to alleviate the energy poverty that means over 400 million people lack electricity. As was demonstrated in Copenhagen in December, Indian officials see poverty eradication as their highest priority in regard to energy development. As the World Bank stated in its decision to provide funding for India's coal facilities: “India needs much more power in a short time frame to continue its economic development".  Thus, by 2030, India's coal consumption will increase 142% and coal-based generation will grow a staggering 260%.

These countries realise that energy from coal is the pathway to improving their quality of life. As clean coal technologies take hold around the world, the possibilities of meeting both climate change goals and sustaining economic growth increase accordingly.

Frank Clemente Ph.D., Professor of Social Science, Penn State University, USA.

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