Coal After the Paris Agreement

The Challenges of Dirty Fuel

Workers unload coal at a storage site along a railway station in Hefei, Anhui province October 27, 2009. Reuters

On December 12, 2015, 195 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, the most ambitious climate change pact to date. The document lays out a plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions, among other climate-related initiatives. Participating countries must now find ways to translate those ambitions into policy, and answer important questions about financing, transparency and accountability, national implementation, and accelerated emissions reduction goals, to name but a few. But one issue looms large: coal. 

Coal-fired electricity is responsible for producing 40 percent of the world’s power and about 70 percent of its steel. The coal industry employs millions worldwide and provides billions of people with electricity. Analysts estimate that the world has hundreds of years of coal reserves in the ground, at current consumption levels. Its abundance, low price, and global availability make it a difficult fuel source to give up. But despite coal’s advantages, it poses significant environmental and health risks. Ten percent of coal consists of ash, which contains radioactive and toxic elements. It is responsible for over $50 billion in medical costs annually in the European Union alone. The environmental consequences of coal use, such as water contamination and habitat destruction, are common. Burning coal adds millions of tons of dangerous particulates and greenhouse gases, including carbon, to the atmosphere.

States and societies around the world rely on coal, even though many of its dangers have been known for decades. If the Paris Agreement is to succeed, global leaders must address the reasons why many countries—particularly in the developing world—still rely on coal. Better yet, they must find new ways to provide coal-reliant countries with affordable, alternative energy, and invest in new technologies that could help mitigate coal’s negative consequences.


Globally, coal production and consumption has risen almost continuously for more than 200 years. The International Energy Agency has estimated that the world burned approximately 7,876 million tons of coal in 2013, adding over 14.8 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere. But global coal statistics do not tell us much about

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