Why Is Coal Energy Not Sustainable?

Coal is a fossil fuel that has powered modern civilization for over a century. It continues to generate roughly one-third of the world’s electricity today. However, there are growing concerns about the sustainability of coal energy going forward. Specifically, coal faces challenges due to its finite supply, extensive environmental impacts, high carbon emissions contributing to climate change, and health dangers from air pollution.

Finite Resource

Coal is a non-renewable fossil fuel that cannot be replenished once it has been used up. The current global coal reserves are estimated to last around 150 years based on today’s production rates. However, experts predict we will reach “peak coal” production globally sometime between 2025 and 2040. After peak coal, production will begin declining as it becomes more difficult and expensive to access remaining coal reserves.

Coal that is closest to the surface has mostly been mined already. Remaining coal reserves are deeper underground or of lower quality, making them costlier to extract. The extensive mining required also makes coal inherently unsustainable. As we deplete finite coal reserves that took hundreds of millions of years to form, the resource will eventually run out.

Extensive Environmental Damage

Coal mining and burning causes significant environmental damage at every stage, from extraction to combustion to waste disposal. Mining destroys forests, mountains, rivers and agricultural land as they are stripped away to access coal deposits. This process generates millions of tons of hazardous waste like coal ash that must be stored indefinitely. Underground mining risks subsidence as land collapses into old mine shafts.

Burning coal releases toxins into the air, including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals like mercury. This leads to acid rain, smog and respiratory illness. Coal plants are the largest emitters of mercury in the US, a potent neurotoxin that bioaccumulates in the food chain. Coal combustion also produces millions of tons of coal ash that contains carcinogens like arsenic.

Disposing of coal waste pollutes land and water. Toxic heavy metals and carcinogens from ash dumps and mining waste leach into groundwater supplies. Spills and ash pond failures have contaminated rivers and lakes, damaging ecosystems. Coal combustion waste is the second largest waste stream in the US.

The immense scale of environmental degradation from the coal lifecycle makes it an inherently unsustainable energy source long-term. The costs of this damage are externalized onto communities near mines and plants.

High Carbon Emissions

Coal is one of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels, emitting higher levels of carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than oil or natural gas. When coal is burned to generate electricity, it produces approximately 2 pounds of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. This is far more than renewable energy sources like solar or wind, which emit virtually no carbon dioxide.

Coal-fired power plants are the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, accounting for 30% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. The United States has one of the world’s largest coal-powered fleets, with coal accounting for nearly 75% of CO2 emissions from the utility sector.

Greenhouse gases like CO2 trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise over time. The extensive burning of coal since the industrial revolution has led to a huge increase in CO2 emissions, greatly accelerating climate change. This contributes to melting glaciers, rising sea levels, warming oceans, more severe storms, longer droughts, and other impacts. Reducing coal consumption is a necessary step to mitigating climate change and avoiding its worst effects.

Health Concerns

Burning coal releases a number of pollutants that negatively impact human health. Fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and other heavy metals can cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution from coal power plants results in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year.

Those living near coal mines and power plants bear the greatest health risks. Studies have shown increased rates of respiratory, cardiovascular, and kidney diseases in populations living in close proximity to coal facilities. Miners also face elevated risks of black lung disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from prolonged exposure to coal dust.

Coal combustion waste or “coal ash” contains high levels of toxic substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury. Improper disposal of this waste has contaminated drinking water supplies in communities across the United States. The health implications of drinking water tainted by coal ash can be severe, especially for children.

Alternatives Exist

There are several cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to coal that can meet our energy needs. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal are rapidly expanding and have huge potential to replace coal-fired power plants around the world.

Solar energy harnesses the sun’s rays to generate electricity using photovoltaic panels. Utility-scale solar farms can produce massive amounts of clean power. Rooftop solar panels allow homes and businesses to generate their own electricity. Solar energy could realistically meet most of the world’s electricity demand in the future.

Wind power utilizes large wind turbines to capture the wind’s kinetic energy and convert it into electricity. Offshore wind farms and onshore wind farms are being built worldwide to tap into this endless renewable resource. Wind energy capacity is growing each year and offers a clean alternative to coal.

Geothermal power plants extract heat from underground reservoirs of steam or hot water to produce clean electricity, heat homes, or provide hot water. Geothermal energy is available 24/7 and does not rely on weather conditions like solar and wind. It provides a consistent clean power source to replace coal.

Stranded Asset Risk

abandoned coal mine with unused railway and infrastructure
As the world transitions away from coal, there is a significant risk that coal assets like power plants, mines, railways, and ports will lose their economic value well before the end of their useful life. This financial risk is known as stranded assets. Investments in coal are increasingly risky as policies, technology, and markets shift towards renewable energy.

Many coal companies and utilities are at risk of having stranded assets that turn into write-downs or early closure costs. As coal demand decreases, coal prices fall, making mines and infrastructure uneconomical. New investments in coal could become worthless. The risk has led many banks and insurers to stop financing new coal projects.

The stranded asset risk means trillions of dollars invested in coal worldwide could disappear as coal declines. Companies still investing in coal face substantial risk of wasting capital on assets that may never pay off. The global transition beyond coal threatens to financially strand coal companies while the world moves on.

Government Policy

Many governments around the world have implemented policies to discourage the use of coal and reduce carbon emissions. One of the most effective policies is carbon pricing, which puts a cost on carbon emissions to incentivize companies and consumers to move towards cleaner energy sources. By making polluters pay for their emissions, carbon pricing helps level the economic playing field for renewable energy. Many jurisdictions now have some form of carbon pricing in place, including carbon taxes, emission trading systems, and clean energy standards that require utilities to source a certain percentage of power from renewables.

Some governments offer tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives for renewable energy projects to further accelerate the transition away from coal. These incentives help offset the upfront capital costs of building wind, solar, and other renewable generation. Many governments are also instituting moratoriums on new coal plants and setting timelines to completely phase-out existing coal generation in favor of cleaner energy. Stricter regulations on coal plant emissions are another policy lever to reduce pollution from coal.

The combination of disincentives for coal via carbon pricing and incentives for renewables is steering energy investment decisively toward clean energy while also reducing coal dependence. Government policy is proving to be a powerful tool for reducing coal usage and emissions in order to mitigate climate change risks.

Industry Trends

Coal consumption and production have been on a steady decline globally over the past decade. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global coal demand dropped by over 4% in 2019, the largest decrease on record. This downward trend is expected to continue as countries shift to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.

The IEA projects coal demand will drop by 13% over the next five years under current government policies and by 27% in a scenario aligned with the Paris Agreement climate targets. In the United States, coal consumption has fallen 39% since its peak in 2007, with over 200 coal plants closed or scheduled for retirement. Major coal consumers like China and India have also canceled hundreds of planned coal projects as renewable energy becomes more cost competitive.

Market forces like cheaper alternatives and environmental regulations have made the economics of coal less favorable. Major banks and insurers have begun divesting from coal, while investments in renewable energy exceeded $300 billion in 2021. With coal in structural decline globally, energy companies face significant stranded asset risks as coal reserves and related infrastructure stand to lose value. The worldwide transition from coal to cleaner energy sources is accelerating.


In summary, coal lacks long-term sustainability for several key reasons. As a finite resource, coal reserves will eventually run out. The extensive environmental damage from mining and burning coal persists for decades. Coal power has very high carbon emissions that accelerate climate change. There are major health concerns from coal pollution. Meanwhile, renewable energy alternatives already exist at competitive prices. Coal plants face stranded asset risks as policies aim for decarbonization. The coal industry is in overall decline as clean energy gains market share. However, with proactive policies and investment, a transition to clean power is achievable in the coming decades. This will enable a sustainable energy system based on renewables like solar, wind and hydropower.

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