The industrial revolution would have been impossible without coal powering the engines of manufacturing, transport and power production. It remains the main energy source for many countries, like China, USA and Australia, and is still significant in Asia and Europe.
Coal however is the most polluting of the fossil fuels, especially in the emission of greenhouse gases, and whilst there are relatively plentiful deposits, but high grade coal, like anthracite, is rare, and lower grade coals are now being used producing more emissions.
The leading world economies, America, China, Russia, Japan and India, all continue to rely on coal for their main heat and power, so the impact of burning coal is likely to remain the main cause of global warming until those countries have invested heavily in alternative energy.
This is perhaps the main cause of resistance to joining an international emissions reduction agreement whilst relatively cheap coal is available and there are no penalties for emissions.
Other important users of coal, listed by the World Coal Production Association, include alumina refineries, paper manufacturers, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Several chemical products can be produced from the by-products of coal. Refined coal tar is used in the manufacture of chemicals, such as creosote oil, naphthalene, phenol, and benzene.
Ammonia gas recovered from coke ovens is used to manufacture ammonia salts, nitric acid and agricultural fertilisers. Thousands of different products have coal or coal by-products as components: soap, aspirin, solvents, dyes, plastics and fibers, such as rayon and nylon. Coal is also an essential ingredient in the production of specialist products including carbon filters, structural carbon fibre and silicon metal production
It is therefore inconceivable that coal should not continue to play a major role in sustainable development, whilst at the same time it is burnt to produce heat and power – the main sources of CO2 emissions need to be curtailed.
The new technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), when the CO2 emissions are prevented from entering the atmosphere is now in the experimental stage, and if successful would extend the life for coal whilst removing the risks from emissions.
Another technology in its infancy, which would reduce environmental damage and emissions, is underground coal gasification – to produce combustible gas for industrial heating and power generation or the manufacture of hydrogen, synthetic natural gas and diesel fuel, as well as fertilizers and other chemical feedstock.
This may be the way total emissions from coal burning could be significantly reduced, whilst contributing to the wellbeing and wealth of nations.