Coal and climate change

In this post I briefly summarise my recently-published paper by the same title, in which I address the question ‘What is the future of coal in the context of climate change?’. In the paper I

  1. Explore the changing geographies of coal consumption and production; and
  2. Review the academic literature, focussing on social science perspectives.

You can access the published version of the paper at Please contact me if you would like to read it but are unable to access it.

Coal consumption, production and trade

Almost everyone agrees that a rapid transition away from coal is needed to limit climate change (e.g. Tong, 2019). But coal is abundant, widespread and easily extracted, and for over 40 years has been the source of around 40% of the world’s heat and power (IEA, 2018). Coal consumption and production are both highly concentrated. The top 10 coal‐producing countries produce 91% of the world’s coal and consume 81%, while 86% of consumption is in the top 10 consuming countries.

One thing that is clear is that the future of coal will be decided in Asia. Coal use in Western Europe and North America has declined in recent years due to the falling cost and rising reliability of renewable sources for baseload power generation as well as deliberate phaseout policies. But consumption in Asia has grown rapidly, driven by China and India, which together account for over 60% of the world’s annual coal consumption. China’s consumption is massive. It has been the world’s largest consumer of coal since 1987 and uses more than five times as much as India. But India’s influence has grown rapidly. The 2nd largest consumer of coal since 2016, India has recorded 18 years of constant consumption growth since the turn of the century (IEA, 2018).

Asia is also the destination of over 70% of the coal traded on the seaborne coal market, three-quarters of which ends up being burned in thermal power plants. For this reason, Asian demand will underpin investment decisions in the highly export-oriented coal mining sectors in Australia and Indonesia, which together are the source of 57% of global coal exports. India and Australia will play a decisive role in the future of coal, and their relationship highlights some of the key areas where research is required.

The academic literature

Given the centrality of coal in both driving climate change in the past and determining emissions trajectories in the future, the body of academic work which directly focuses on coal and climate change is surprisingly small. Most of the social science literature engages with coal only indirectly. However, in the paper I review five areas for research which I think have a lot to contribute to our understanding of the future of coal in the context of climate change:

  1. The locally situated politics of coal;
  2. The political economy of coal;
  3. Supply-side climate policy;
  4. The discursive politics of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS); and
  5. The place of coal in a ‘just transition’, what climate justice means for coal, and what coal means for climate justice.

It isn’t that coal has not been studied. There is a substantial literature focussed on local contests over coal extraction, and a reasonable literature on the international political economy of coal. But both of these literatures could be developed by more work which explicitly understands and frames coal conflicts as climate change conflicts.

Work on supply-side climate policy and CCS both focus more directly on climate change, occupying the opposite ends of the climate policy spectrum. Supply side policy starts from the position that in order to limit climate change, significant known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground and that this will require reducing their supply, not just reducing demand for the energy they provide. CCS posits that coal can be made ‘climate neutral’ through technological interventions. Both have been questioned on practical grounds. Questions have been raised about whether the necessary political will can be garnered from major coal producers to make supply-side climate policy feasible, while there is no evidence that CCS is technologically feasible given the scale required and the need for a rapid rollout. But all of these bodies of research raise questions of justice.

So the key research agenda from my perspective revolves around justice. Academic work on coal in the context of climate change consistently raises justice questions and justice has gradually and almost imperceptibly risen to central stage in debates between coal’s proponents and opponents. Coal is perhaps the most significant source of both historical and current greenhouse gas emissions. Coal provided the energy on which the developed countries built their economic and political power. But coal consumption has shifted and its future will be decided in the developing world. This means that debates about how much, where, when and by whom coal can be used in the context of climate change are frequently—perhaps always—proxy debates about justice and what it means for development and sustainability. As I conclude in the paper:

“There is a critical need for normatively engaged and reflexive work on coal in the context of climate change, because in the final analysis, the politics of coal is the politics of climate justice.” (Edwards, 2019: 12)


Edwards GAS (2019) Coal and Climate Change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 10 (5): e607.

IEA (2018) Coal Information 2018. Paris: OECD.

Tong D, Zhang Q, Zheng Y, Caldeira K, Shearer C, Hong C, Qin Y and Davis SJ (2019) Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5°C climate target. Nature 572 (7769): 373–377.