Coal in the 21st Century: Energy Needs, Chemicals and Environmental Controls
Published:02 Oct 2017
Special Collection: 2017 ebook collection , ECCC Environmental eBooks 1968-2022
Coal in the 21st Century: Energy Needs, Chemicals and Environmental Controls, ed. R. E. Hester and R. M. Harrison, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017, pp. P007-P009.
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The long-term future for coal looks very bleak. The recent UN climate change conference (COP21) in Paris signaled an end to the fossil fuel era. And yet coal remains one of the world's most important sources of energy, fuelling over 40% of electricity generation worldwide. In many countries this figure is much higher: Poland relies on coal for over 94% of its electricity; South Africa for 92%; China for 77%; and Australia for 76%. India, the world's third largest energy consumer, generating over 70% of its electricity from coal in 2015, has set ambitious targets for increasing its coal-fired capacity over the next few years.
Coal has been the world's fastest growing energy source in recent years – faster than gas, oil, nuclear, hydro and renewables. During the next two decades several hundred million people worldwide will get electricity for the first time and, if current trends continue, most will use power produced by coal. It is essential also for steel and cement production and a host of other industrial activities. In China, coal is used on a grand scale for making many industrial chemicals, plastics, and liquid fuels – a role played by oil in most other countries.
However, the environmental impacts of the coal industry are hugely damaging. It is a major driver of climate change, almost 40% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions arising from burning coal. It kills thousands every year in mines and many more through air pollution. In presenting a critical review of coal in the 21st century, this book endeavours to provide a balanced view of both the positive and negative aspects of the topic, with an emphasis on the changing nature and future for the coal industry around the world.
Chapter 1, written by Liam McHugh of the World Coal Association, makes the case for coal being a critical enabler in the modern world, providing 41% of the world's electricity and being an essential raw material in the production of 70% of the world's steel and 90% of the world's cement. It has been and continues to be key to the building of modern societies and many countries have identified a continuing role for coal in their energy mix as they assess their future needs for access to energy, energy security and social and economic development. The 2015 ‘Paris Agreement’ recognised that energy access and climate goals are not competing priorities but do require a balanced approach in order to achieve sustainable development.
Following on from this introductory overview, Zeshan Hyder of the Missouri University of Science and Technology reviews the methodology of coal mining in Chapter 2. Both surface and underground mining are described and the trade-offs in terms of economic benefits versus adverse environmental consequences are outlined. The world's largest producers of coal are China, United States, India, Australia and Indonesia.
Chapter 3 presents a technical examination of coal-fired power stations by Lucas Kruitwagen, Seth Collins and Ben Caldecott of the University of Oxford. The wide array of environment-related risks are detailed, including greenhouse gas emissions and stranded assets; water consumption and competition with agriculture, industry, and domestic uses; climate stresses induced by anthropogenic climate change; competition with renewables and generating flexibility; costs and trade-offs of mitigation options; retrofitability with carbon capture and storage; and the availability of finance. The chapter concludes that the future of coal in the 21st century depends largely on the response of policy makers, industry and the concerned public to these risks.
In Chapter 4, Barbara Gottlieb and Alan Lockwood of the US organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility focus on the negative health impacts of coal, pointing out that coal-related pollution makes important contributions to four of the five leading causes of death in the US and that every aspect of coal use poses threats to health. Mining accidents, coal-worker's pneumoconiosis caused by sustained inhalation of coal dust, water and air pollution, toxic wastes, transportation and combustion pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change all are examined critically as factors to be considered in assessing the cost of using coal.
Ken Kimmell and Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, review the changing field of regulation in Chapter 5, providing insights on current policy and regulatory context for the major economies of China, India and Germany, as well as the United States. The transition to a low-carbon development is being driven largely by public health and climate change issues, but there are complex technological and socioeconomic questions to be addressed. This chapter provides a detailed overview of market trends and regulatory policy in these major coal-dependent countries, with particular emphasis on the US and the constraints of its political system.
In Chapter 6, Colin Snape of the University of Nottingham addresses the subject of liquid fuels and chemical feedstocks derived from coal. The direct liquefaction process involves catalysed reaction with hydrogen to cleave C–C bonds and remove heteroatoms (O, N and S), whereas indirect liquefaction utilises steam to transform coal into syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which then can be converted catalytically into a wide variety of fuels and useful chemicals. This latter process has been the more widely utilised to date. The chapter focuses on the process conditions and the chemistry involved in converting coal to fuels and chemical feedstocks.
Finally, in Chapter 7, Ben Anthony of Cranfield University reviews the development and current status of carbon capture and storage (CCS). If the world is to meet its COP21 commitments and avoid ambient CO2 levels in the environment reaching 450 ppm and above, limiting global temperature rise to 2 °C, CCS and/or related technologies appear to be essential. Renewable energy developments are unlikely to achieve this target on their own. However, although it is widely recognised that continuing large-scale use of fossil fuels worldwide does need to be accompanied by new technology to remove CO2 from flue gases, the lack of political will to support the large-scale industrial deployment of CCS is telling. The alternative scenarios likely to result from global warming – forced population migration and famine – are alarming!
We are pleased to have been able to engage this international group of experts in producing a detailed and wide-ranging, well-balanced and informative review of coal in the 21st century. The importance of coal in meeting the world's energy needs as well as supporting major industries such as steel and cement production is unquestionable, but the environmental cost is high and there is an urgent need for mitigation strategies. The book provides crucial information and a balanced examination of both the positive and negative aspects of this controversial topic, which may be key to future policy-making at the highest level. It will additionally be of value to climate scientists and other scientists, engineers and managers involved in the energy and manufacturing industries and equally to students of environmental science and climate change.
Ronald E. Hester
Roy M. Harrison