There is a large variety of raw materials that are used by human societies to satisfy basic needs as well as to feed the economy. They differ considerably with regard to aspects such as their availability, value, economic benefit, environmental and social impact, etc. Using coal as an example, this story exemplifies the analytical options of the application ‘Raw Material Profiles‘, which aims at supporting discussions on sustainability issues related to specific materials. This is done by means of compiling the most relevant visualisations from the Visualisation Centre and analysing them from the perspectives of material extraction, trade and consumption.

Coal is a sedimentary rock consisting of high amounts of carbon that formed millions of years ago. Like other fossil fuels, coal is combusted to produce energy. The most common way to classify different types of coal is by concentration of carbon. Accordingly, anthracite has the highest carbon concentration, followed by bituminous coal, subbituminous coal, and lignite, also called ‘brown coal’. Another type of classification is for example according to the amount of heat energy released during combustion. (Wagner, N. J. (2021): Geology of Coal, in: Alderton, D., Elias S.A. (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Geology (Second Edition))

Compared to other fossil fuels, coal emits significantly more CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced and is the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions globally. In 2019, coal accounted for 44 % of the global energy-related CO2 emissions. (IEA, 2019: Global energy & CO2 status report 2019). The main reasons for the extensive use of coal are its abundance all over the world, its accessibility, easy storage and portability. Furthermore, extraction as well as processing of coal is not capital intensive.

Global trends of coal extraction

In 2017, coal accounted for about 9 % of global raw material extraction and more than half (53.2 %) of globally extracted fossil fuels. The next figure shows the extraction trends by world regions.

In the period 1970 to 2017, global coal extraction was on the rise. Over the whole time period, it increased by 160 % from 3.1 billion tonnes to 8.0 billion tonnes. This was mainly due to the expansion of coal extraction in the ‘Asia and the Pacific’ region (from 0.6 billion tonnes in 1970 to 5.6 billion tonnes in 2017). The region’s share in global extraction increased from 20 % in 1970 to 70 % in 2017, accordingly. The extraction pattern of the ‘Asia and the Pacific’ region was mainly determined by China, accounting for 46 % of regional extraction (see following map). While coal extraction was on the rise in the ‘Asia and the Pacific’ region from 1970 to 2017, in the regions ‘Europe’ and ‘Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia’, overall coal extraction as well as the shares in global extraction declined from 1.1 billion tonnes (37 %) and 0.7 billion tonnes (23 %) to 0.6 billion tonnes (8 %) and 0.5 billion tonnes (5 %) respectively. This decline in coal extraction was most abrupt in the period 1989 to 2000, as a consequence of the political developments in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

On the country level, in 2017, China showed the biggest extraction volumes globally with 3.7 billion tonnes, followed by United States of America (0.8 billion tonnes) and India (0.7 billion tonnes).

This shows that coal extraction reductions in many industrialised countries during the last century were offset by the expansion of capacities in emerging economies of the ‘Asia and the Pacific’ region. Due to further economic development, in countries like China and Indonesia, growth in coal extraction is expected to continue. (IPCC, 2018: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change)

This trend is supported by an interactive tool by climateanalytics, showing the coal capacity of countries at present, further additions that are under construction already and those that are planned or announced as well as the amount of current and future carbon pollution from these plants.

International coal trade

Compared to other materials, the share of coal that is internationally traded is rather minor. The next figure illustrates this fact showing how much of the globally extracted coal is actually traded.

The share of traded coal increased from 7 % in 1970 to 18 % in 2017. Although the majority of the extracted coal is still used domestically, the traded share gains in significance. The majority of global coal exports stems from only two countries: Australia and Indonesia. With 420.8 million tonnes and 419.2 million tonnes, respectively, of net-exportsnet-exports = exports minus imports in 2017, Australia and Indonesia were by far the biggest net-exporters of coal. On the other hand, India and Japan were the top net-importersnet-imports = imports minus exports with 253.6 million tonnes and 197.5 million tonnes, respectively. This, again, shows how economic growth and the rapidly rising demand for energy of emerging economies is often fuelled by coal.

Global fossil fuel consumption

For the material sub-category ‘coal’, data on consumption is not available yet. Hence, the Raw Material Profile presents data on overall fossil fuel consumption. In general, fossil fuel consumption grew from 9.6 billion tonnes in 1970 to 15.0 billion tonnes in 2013. The next figure illustrates how global consumption of fossil fuels is distributed among world regions and via which sectors and product groups direct and indirect flowsThe indicator Raw Material Consumption (RMC) takes into account indirect flows. It thus captures the amount of domestic and foreign extraction of materials needed along all supply chains to produce the final products consumed in a country.
For more information, see our specific story on material consumption or the method-section.
of fossil fuels end up in final consumption.

With 7.0 billion tonnes (46 %) in 2013, the ‘Asia and the Pacific’ region had the largest share in global fossil fuel consumption, followed by the regions ‘North America’ with 3.4 billion tonnes (23 %) and ‘Europe’ with 3.0 billion tonnes (20 %).

Broken down by sector, consumption of fossil fuels in the region ‘Asia and the Pacific’ differs from consumption of fossil fuels in the regions ‘Europe’ and ‘North America’. Whereas the primary sector in the region ‘Asia and the pacific’ contributed 800.9 million tonnes (12 %) to fossil fuel consumption, in the regions ‘Europe’ and ‘North America’, it was only 181.3 million tonnes (6 %) and 25.5 million tonnes (1 %) respectively.

However, in all regions the secondary sector contributed most to fossil fuel consumption. The contribution amounted to 4.4 billion tonnes or 63 % in the ‘Asia and the Pacific’ region, 1.9 billion tonnes in ‘North America’ (56 %) and 1.8 billion tonnes in ‘Europe’ (60 %). For instance, the sector ‘construction’ accounted for 34 % of the secondary sector’s fossil fuel consumption in ‘Asia and the Pacific’, illustrating the ongoing construction boom in many Asian countries. The second biggest fossil fuel consuming sub-sectors in that region were ‘Manufacturing of metal and mineral-based products’ and ‘Manufacturing of fossil fuel-based products’. In Europe and North America, those sub-sectors together with the sub-sector ‘Energy’ were among the top three fossil fuel consuming sectors within the secondary sector.

Delivery of fossil fuels to final consumption via the tertiary sectors happens for example via telecommunication activities and business-related services or via educational, human health and social work activities. Interestingly, in all three regions, the category ‘other services’ had the largest share. This is most cases due to energy-intensive supply chains of some service sectors like ‘maintenance and repair’, ‘public administration’ or ‘education, health and other services’.

Impacts of coal along its life cycle

The use of coal causes a wide range of environmental impacts at all stages of the life cycle. First, land is cleared for coal mines, and soil and rock above coal deposits or even mountaintops are removed causing extensive land disturbance. In this context, also water supplies can be altered, as groundwater levels often have to be lowered to allow coal extraction. During the mining process, groundwater is drained and discharged into surrounding water bodies to keep the mining pit dry. Further, water is used extensively for cooling purposes in the conversion of coal to energy. If coal plants are located in areas with local water scarcity their impact is even more accentuated. (endcoal, 2021: Coal impacts on water)

During coal combustion, airborne toxins and pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. This causes damage to the environment and contributes to global warming. Apart from that, it also poses a major threat to public health (Breeze, P. (2015): Coal Combustion and the Environment, in: Breeze P. (Ed.): Coal-Fired Generation).

After its combustion in power plants, coal ash often ends up in ponds, lakes, landfills or other sites, contaminating waterways and drinking water supplies over time. (endcoal, 2021: Coal impacts on water)

Last but not least, coal is the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions and therefore a major contributor to climate change. Accordingly, the phase-out of coal is a key step for the transition towards a carbon-low energy system and the achievement of the emission reductions agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. (IPCC, 2018: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change)

To allow for such a phase-out, accompanying measures are the switch to renewable energy sources as well as energy saving strategies.