"The black gold"
In 2020, coal supplied about a quarter of the world's primary energy and over a third of its electricity. Some iron, steel-making, and other industrial processes burn coal. 14 billion tons of CO2 were emitted by burning coal in 2020, which is 40% of the total fossil fuel emissions (and over 25% of total global GHG emissions). Global coal production amounted to 4,170 Mtoe (174.6 EJ) in 2022 [STAT, 2023].
It is the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions.
It has been used for heating since the cave man.
Depending on the type of coal, the carbon content is 25-97%.
More than 90% of the U.S. coal is used for electricity.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 892 billion tons of coal reserves.
Although it is a major emitter of GHG (the highest among fossil fuels), coal has some benefits:
Abundant deposits in all regions of the earth.
Compared to charcoal, mineral coal has greater energy efficiency due to its ability to produce heat.
Very significant energy production per unit of weight.
Coal is classified into four main types: anthracite (highest ranked, hardest coal, highest heating value, low sulfur content, mostly used for chemical & metallurgical purposes, 86%–97% carbon content), bituminous (soft coal, most popular coal, 45%–86%), sub-bituminous (brown coal, 35%–45%), and lignite (lower ranked, 25%–35%).
The ranking depends on the types and amounts of carbon the coal contains and on the amount of heat energy the coal can produce. The rank of a coal deposit is determined by the amount of pressure & heat that acted on the plants over time [EIA, 2023]. Figure 1 shows the main types of coal.
Coal producers & consumers
In 2022, the world’s coal output expanded by 8.2% as coal prices remained at a high level, caused by supply disruptions from the Russo-Ukraine conflict. China remained the world’s largest coal and lignite producer in 2022, accounting more than half of supply (51% in 2022) and its share is growing (+4% since 2019), followed by India (11%), and Indonesia (8%) [ED, 2023].
In 2022, global consumption of coal surpassed 8 billion tons in a single year for the first time, with China and India being the two biggest consumers in absolute terms [VC, 2023]. Figure 2 shows the nations's reliance on coal in 2022.
The turning point
According to new projections from the IEA World Energy Outlook (WEO), the age of relentless fossil fuels growth is set to come to an end this decade. The report shows that demand for each of the three fossil fuels (coal, oil & NG) is set to hit a peak in the coming years. This is the first time that a peak in demand is visible for each fuel this decade [FT, 2023].
Figure 1: Main coal types
Figure 2: Nation's reliance on coal (2022)