For much of the world, every time a person flicks on a light switch or turns on the blender, chances are that their power supply is coming, at least in part, from coal. Coal has been used as a fuel since the days of the Han Dynasty in China, around 200 BC. 39% of the world’s power comes from coal, though in the United States more than 50% of electricity production is via coal-fired power plants. In China, the world’s largest producer (and consumer) of coal, that figure is closer to 70%.
Compared to most other forms of power generation, coal is cheap and readily available. The three largest consumers of coal, China, the United States, and India, used 1.6 billion tons, 613 million tons, and 208 million tons respectively, in 2007. At the current rates of consumption, the world has enough coal to last over 200 years, possibly more.
Of course, coal is a fossil fuel, which takes millions of years to form, and like oil, it has other uses rather than simply burning it. Beyond that, though, the production and consumption of coal is an incredibly harmful process, for the planet and for all living things, especially humans.
Let’s take a look at coal, from the ground up. We are rearranging the surface of the planet in order to get at the coal underneath. In the Appalachians, they are removing the tops of entire mountains and filling in the valleys. In the western states and provinces, they simply scrape off the top of the ground, pull out the coal with giant excavators, and then dump the leftovers back in and call it “reclaimed”. Surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation, displaces and destroys wildlife and their habitat, and to some degree permanently changes the general topography of the area mined.
In China alone, over 6,000 people die every year while mining coal. The United States has a much better safety record, but even there 50 or more people die every year in mining accidents. Coal mining is one of the more dangerous occupations available.
Even after the coal is burned it still affects the land. The leftover ash, hundreds of millions of tons per year, has to be disposed of. These ashes actually release far more radiation than any operating nuclear power plant. Ash is often stored mixed with water in a coal slurry, which is contained in ponds and closed valleys. Sometimes these burst, with disastrous results.
Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the primary contributor to acid rain. Each year, more than 3 billion tons of carbon are released by coal-burning power plants around the world. Sometimes as soot, but far more often as carbon dioxide. The immediate health effects are estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to kill upwards of one million people every year.
How many people are killed, or will be killed, or even “just” economically displaced by global climate change is unknown, but the WHO estimates deaths at approximately 150,000 per year.
When you stop to consider the amount of damage caused by burning coal, the number of lives lost, and people displaced, or the numbers of wild species endangered by global climate change, the true cost of coal starts to emerge. In fact, the cost is so high, that coal use verges on the criminal. Despite how cheap and easy it may seem, the sooner the world phases out coal, the better for everyone.