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This briefing sheet aims to provide accurate and up-to-date information on current and future coal use in the UK and worldwide.
Coal is a solid fossil fuel with global reserves of over 100 years. Coal was the original fuel of the industrial revolution and continues to be a key energy source.
The International Energy Association reports that, after two years of decline, global coal demand grew by 1% in 2017 to 7,585 Mt, as stronger global economic growth increased both industrial output and electricity use. Coal is used to generate 38% of worldwide electricity.
Coal is mined in over 100 countries, across all continents except Antarctica. It's a widely available and affordable fuel. The largest reserves are found in the USA, Russia, China, India and Australia. Further data and statistics can be found on the World Coal Association website.
Coal consumption in the UK has fallen since the 1980s as the UK has been able to develop its North Sea oil and gas fields and complete a substantial nuclear electricity programme. Today, the UK imports more than three quarters of the coal it uses – the main sources being Russia, USA, Australia and Colombia.
According to Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), demand for coal fell by 17% from 14.4 million tonnes in 2017 to 11.9 million tonnes in 2018. Over half - 56% - of demand for coal was for electricity generation. Overall demand in 2018 was a fifth of the level in 2000, reflecting the major decrease in UK coal generation over that period. UK coal production in 2018 was an all-time low of 2.6 million tonnes. In 2018, UK imports of coal were 10.1 million tonnes.
Burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Coal combustion for electricity generation has around twice the carbon dioxide emissions of gas per unit generated. In 2018, coal-fired power plants were the single largest contributor to the 1.7% growth in global energy-related CO2 emissions, with an increase of 2.9% (or 280 Mt) compared with 2017 levels. The total emissions from coal power plants exceeded 10 Gt for the first time and coal-fired electricity generation accounted for 30% of global CO2 emissions.
In the longer term, it will not be possible to deliver targets and programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and continue to burn coal at current levels.
One potential solution to this challenge is the installation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which removes carbon dioxide from combustion emissions for permanent disposal underground. All of the several candidate techniques are at early stages of development and a wide range of R&D and pilot projects are underway worldwide. However, it's not yet clear whether this technology can be commercially viable. Further details can be found on ICE’s briefing sheet on CCS.
In addition to greenhouse gases, during the combustion process coal-fired power stations emit oxides of sulphur (SOx) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). These gases mix with water vapour and other substances in the atmosphere to form acid rain. This problem can be reduced through the use of low sulphur coal, the use of low NOx combustion technology and the introduction of flue cleaning technology.
Over the next 20 years, worldwide energy demand is widely forecast to increase, with much of this in the developing world. The abundance of coal worldwide makes it a readily available source of heat energy for these countries. Even without CCS technology, coal use is therefore likely to grow substantially in the medium term. Unless CCS technology can be developed to a commercial stage, this continued expansion of coal will present a major challenge to greenhouse gas emission reductions. The coal industry recognises this challenge and considerable work is underway to develop solutions.
The UK government has announced that electricity generation from coal without CCS must end by 2025, in order to deliver UK commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. This is effectively the end for coal as an energy source in the UK, unless and until commercially-viable CCS becomes available.