The Environmental Impact of the Coal Industry

Michelle Heath
The Environmental Impact of the Coal Industry

The environmental impact of the coal industry is striking. Climate concerns continue to create an adverse business climate for builders of new coal plants with over 126 globally significant banks and insurers widening restrictions and 33 national and 27 sub-national governments committed to phasing out coal and transitioning to clean power sources.

In 2018, coal-fired plants were the single largest contributor to the growth in energy related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, surpassing 10 gigatonnes (Gt).

Approximately 72% of all the electricity generation produced from coal is in three countries, China (4,854 TWh), India (1,137 TWh) and United States (1,054 TWh). 

China was the responsible for 49.4% of the global CO2 emissions from coal, India was second (11.7%) and the United States third (8.7%).

China represents nearly half of all operating capacity and plans to grow further.

Historically, global coal power capacity has continued to rise but retirements are accelerating and the pipeline of new plants under construction or proposed shrunk by two-thirds between 2015 and 2019 (CarbonBrief). 

With coal-based developing countries like China and India continuing to rely on coal as an affordable energy source, the coal industry will continue to play a significant role in power, steel and cement production for decades to come.  In search of ways to reduce the emissions profile of coal, these countries are making large investments in the area of low-emission generating units and clean coal technology.

The environmental impact of coal will be closely watched in the future.


CIS – Commonwealth of Independent State

GW – gigawatt; one gigawatt = 1,000 megawatts = 1 billion watts (109)

TW – terawatt; one terawatt equals one trillion (1012) watts

TWh – terawatt-hour; a unit of energy equal to an output of one trillion watts per hour