Just a Lump of Coal?

By Michaela Ehring

They warn kids that they’ll get a lump of coal for Christmas if they do not behave as they ought to.
Coal has been valuable for centuries, the “black gold” indispensable for industrialization and heating. It’s an asset we have come to take for granted in the developed countries. But, as the 20th century came to its end, everyone could see the dark side of this valued mineral. Its continued mining and use for power plants puts life on this planet at risk for everyone.

Coal is the worst polluter of the environment

Coal mining in North America started in the 1600s in New Brunswick, Canada. In human history it has been mined and used for thousands of years, as documented in ancient China and Rome.

More Energy than Wood

Compared to wood, it yields a higher amount of energy per unit mass, specific energy or mass energy. And it was available in areas that lacked any forests to speak of. As world population increased, so did the mining and use of this mineral – and exponentially so.

Today there are over 1,000 coal power plants in China alone, and the US and India have about 200 plus each. As reported for instance in The Guardian, India aims to double the amount it mines to one billion ton a year by 2025. As coal is the worst polluter of the environment, it should be phased out quickly, but that is actually not happening. Nearly half of the 1,000 coal companies that were studied are still developing new coal assets, and only 27 have announced coal exit dates consistent with climate targets.

Mining completely eradicates the existing vegetation, alters soil composition, and displaces fauna

Australian companies are on the forefront of new mining projects apart from China and India, according to a comprehensive study by the German environmental group Urgewald. “The IEA said in May 2021 that no new coal-fired power stations could be built if the world was to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.” (The Guardian).

Due to the war in Ukraine and the end of gas and oil imports from Russia, Germany reactivated another coal power plant in 2022. Despite its goal of ending all coal-fueled power generation by 2038, Germany is now importing even more coal, and from far-away places like Australia. This has, of course, a terrible carbon footprint in terms of transportation alone. But Germany has no more bituminous coal deposits, which used to make its industrialization possible, and is therefore in a bind. Recently, environmentalists lost their struggle with the German government and energy corporations, as well as police. The last remaining deposit of lignite is going to be “developed” in open pit mining, despite having a village sitting on top of it.

Canadian Mines

Canada still has 19 operating coal mines. As stated by the Alberta Wilderness Association (Canada), mining completely eradicates the existing vegetation, alters soil composition, and displaces fauna, which can result in permanently scarred landscapes. Large sites cleared for open-pit mines and the associated infrastructure can change the entire topography of the area.

But the mining not only has a local or regional effect on the landscape, its flora and fauna. Mining itself produces huge amounts of carbon emissions, so that the targets for gases and particulate matter in the air cannot be reached regionally, nationally, or internationally.

We all have received too many lumps of coal and should aspire to radically improved behaviour, should we not? The IPPC certainly thinks so.

Michaela Ehring is a member of Peace Magazine’s editorial committee.

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