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Coal: a destructive energy source
NASA scientist Jim Hansen has described coal as “the single greatest threat to the climate“. Coal contains more carbon than other fossil fuels such as oil and gas, resulting in the release of greater quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it is burned. Coal therefore contributes more to climate change than any other energy source. Burning coal is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world in 2012, 43 per cent of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion were produced by coal. As one of the cheapest fossil fuels on the global energy market, many countries rely heavily on coal for their electricity. Nearly 40 per cent of the world electricity comes from coal, but some countries such as Poland, South Africa and Australia rely on coal-fired power stations for more than 80 per cent of their electricity.
Each step of the coal-to-energy process generates pollution and destructive impacts for communities, workers and the environment. Coal mining, like other types of mining, is often highly unsafe for workers. Thousands of people die in coal mining accidents each year, with the worst fatality rates occurring in countries with poor health and safety standards for workers. And like other extractive industries, coal mining very often involves the displacement of communities, often under duress and with little or no compensation or support for developing alternative livelihoods. Small-scale farmers and Indigenous Peoples lose their land, their livelihoods, and access to natural resources on which they are often heavily reliant. In the global South, displaced people are often forced into low paid, insecure work as landless labourers or are forced to migrate to cities in search of work and often find themselves as slum dwellers, without access to basic services and vulnerable to eviction and continued displacement. Just one new proposed mine – the proposed Phulbari coal mine in Bangladesh will involve the acquisition of 6,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land and, according to project documents and independent reports, will physically and economically displace 50,000 to 220,000 people. Similarly, in Mozambique, Brazilian company Vale displaced communities from over 22,000 hectares of land for their open pit coal mines, and ‘compensated’ them with 3,800 hectares of rocky, infertile land. One way communities have been protesting is by stopping the trains that carry the coal to ports.
Coal mining often generates severe environmental impacts. The exact impacts depend on the type of coal mining. Open-cast (open-cut) coal mining and mountain-top removal are particularly destructive. Open-cast mining – mining of the surface rather than by tunnelling into the earth – destroys the topographical landscape, impacting groundwater and surface water systems, agricultural and forest lands, giving rise to significant noise and dust pollution and often to land subsidence. Mountain-top removal involves the demolition of mountain tops using explosives in order to reach thin seams of coal within. This form of mining produces millions of tonnes of rubble and toxic waste, often dumped into the streams and valleys below the mining sites, poisoning drinking water and destroying biodiverse forests and wildlife habitat nearby, as well as increasing the risk of flooding for nearby communities.
Coal mining is itself highly polluting, generating waste soil and slurry polluted by toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, selenium and arsenic, which often leach into local water supplies. The toxic waste also pollutes the air in areas surrounding coal mines, affecting mine workers and communities who live locally.
The health impacts from coal combustion are also extremely severe. Burning coal produces a variety of air-borne pollutants associated with numerous health problems, including bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, heart attacks, lung damage, problems with nervous system development in babies and young children and premature deathix. And coal plants produce millions tonnes of coal ash pollution, the toxic by-product that is left over after the coal is burned. The public health hazards to nearby communities from unsafe coal ash dumping include increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma, and other illnesses. China’s coal plants alone generated 375 million tonnes of ash in 2009 – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool every 2.5 minutes.
Using the relatively tight pollution standards of Europe, health researchers estimate the worldwide health toll from air pollution due to coal combustion is 210,000 deaths, almost 2 million serious illnesses, and over 151 million minor illnesses per year, not including the effects of climate change. Pollution standards are not as protective in countries like China, where coal combustion for electricity production causes an estimated 250,000 deaths per year. A recent study by the European Health & Environment Alliance asserted that health costs of coal-fired power stations add a financial burden to the European population of up to €42.8 billion a year.
Yet, despite the role of coal power as a driver of the climate crisis, governments around the world are supporting the expansion of the coal industry and the construction of many new coal-fired power stations. Investment in new coal-fired power is competing directly with much-needed public investment in renewable energy, locking countries economies in to highly destructive, high-carbon energy infrastructure, thus increasing the risk of runaway climate change and making energy transition far more expensive over the long term. Approximately 1,199 new coal-fired power plants are currently proposed across the world, 76 per cent of them in China and India, which now host much of the highly polluting energy intensive dirty industry that has been offshored from advanced industrialised countries because of their tighter environmental and social regulations. Carbon emissions from coal are expected to increase by 60 per cent by 2030.