Burning coal emits more CO2 than any other fuel source for the amount of energy it produces. Burning coal also pollutes our air with many other hazardous gasses, including nitrogen oxide, mercury, and sulphur dioxide – with global and local consequences for climate change, the natural environment, and our own health.
Globally, the amount of coal we burn each year is still increasing, with no end in sight. In 2021, coal generated over 1/3 of global energy and was the largest single source of CO2 emissions. Despite the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement, and 27 COPs, coal continues to devastate any hope of limiting climate change to 1.5c.
Coal is primarily burned to generate electricity in large power plants, but it is also used to generate heat directly by burning it in the fireplaces of homes. Where this domestic use of coal occurs, it’s a significant source of fine particulate matter air pollution within the home. Because of the small particulate size, the “toxins may enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs”.
Another globally significant use of coal is to consume it at steelworks. The coal used to produce 1 tonne of steel emits approximately 2 tonnes of CO2. Coal used in making steel is responsible for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s increasing. Evidence indicates carbon capture and storage will never be able to deliver the CO2 savings hoped for despite time and huge investment in research and testing. However, methods of making steel without coal offer better hope of decarbonisation. More investment and political commitment is needed to accelerate and scale up these methods see Coal in Steel.
Decreasing amounts of coal used in power plants to generate electricity and in household fireplaces “has been a major factor in reducing emissions of particulate matter”. Coal for electricity generation has been displaced primarily by natural gas and renewables, mostly wind. In 2022, coal contributed an average (and median) of just 1%, and peaks of 7%, to the National Grid. There were a number of periods where coal contributed nothing to national energy production. In contrast, just a decade earlier in 2012, coal contributed an average (and median) of just 42-43%, and peaks of 61%, to the national grid. That means, in one decade, the UK’s reliance on coal to generate electricity has reduced by over 40x.
This has the UK on-track for the Government’s 2024 coal-power phase out target. However, a number of ageing coal fired power stations and units including West Burton, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, and coal units at Drax, saw their lives extended by the UK Government from the end of 2022 to 2023 and beyond. The UK Government expected to pay private power station generators up to £420 million to keep the coal power stations online. Aware of the consequences for local air quality to run these old power stations, DEFRA Minister George Eustice ordered the Environment Agency regulator to ignore breaches in pollution limits from these power stations over the winter. The Government justified this action as an energy security measure, but the UK Government also claimed “Unlike other countries in Europe, the UK is in no way dependent on Russian gas supply”. As usual, it will be communities living in the area surrounding these power stations that pay the price of these measures with their health.
There are two primary steelworks in the UK – TATA steelworks in Port Talbot, and British Steel steelworks in Scunthorpe. These are the 2nd and 3rd highest single-site sources of CO2 in the UK, after Drax power station. The UK cannot meet its net-zero target without decarbonising its steel sector. In early 2023, the UK Government offered both steelworks £300 million each to green their operations and save them from financial failure in coming years. Previously TATA alone had said it needed £1.5 billion from government or it would have to close.
In 2022, the iron and steel industry used 2.1 million tonnes of coal, a significant reduction from 2015 (5.2 million tonnes). In terms of total share, that amounts to 35% of total UK coal consumption in 2022, up from 14% in 2015 (due to declining amounts of coal used for energy generation).
Significant emissions result from coal combustion include: