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What is the future for coal in the 21st Century?

Does coal mining still have a future? Well, yes it probably does for at least the next 30 to 50 years, perhaps longer. Currently 38.5% of the world's electrical power is generated by coal. It is also critical in steel making, aluminium, plastics, construction, manufacturing and many other industries. Coal brings in export dollars and pays royalties to governments. Miners pay tax (well, mine workers' pay tax – not quite the same thing) and mining has strong support from certain political parties.

Think of the population of Australia. Currently it stands at about 25 million people, which is quite a crowd. Now imagine each single person is actually 34 people. That makes the crowd 860 million people. That is an awful lot of people. That is the number of people in the world right now that do not have access to electricity.

Unlike you and me, they can't just flick a switch and turn on a light. They can't build something using power tools because they don't have any power. No refrigerators. No TV. No air conditioning or heaters. No ability to pump water with a simple electric pump. Their children have difficulty learning because they have to rely on a battery lamp or a candle or an oil lamp. This is in the world of 2019, not the nineteenth century. Many of these people live in Africa south of the Sahara Desert in a region known as sub-Saharan Africa and in South East Asia.

860 million people is a vast improvement – it was over 2 billion in 2000. But in 2000 the UN set goals to get affordable electricity to everybody and bearing in mind the growth in world population, they have done a pretty decent job in the last 20 years. More than 1.3 billion people lifted out of poverty by the provision of electricity, which is huge achievement. But how is this electricity generated? In many cases the electricity is generated by burning coal.

Many of those people lifted out of poverty live in India and China where electricity generation between 1971 and 2011 has jumped from around 55Gw to 874Gw in India and from 128Gw to 4521Gw in China over the same period. Much of this was and still is generated by coal; some mined domestically, some imported. For comparison: Australia generates about 10Gw. Bayswater generates 2.6Mw of that power, Eraring about 2.9Mw. 1Gw is 1000Mw, a Mw is 1000Kw, a Kw is 1000watts. A modern light bulb uses about 8watts.

Where is this leading? The world will continue to mine and burn coal for the foreseeable future because it is cheap and available. It is the ideal fuel (if you ignore the Carbon Dioxide) for large scale generation of electricity to be distributed via a grid. All the Developed World has been doing this for the past 200 years. Europe, North America and Australia amongst others became affluent because we had easy access to coal to generate electricity.

We do not have the right to deny the Emerging World the same as we had. They have every right to continue to burn coal to generate electricity. So much of what we take for granted today is there because somebody dug some coal out of the ground to start the process. While the world still depends on coal to generate electricity, it is no longer the "only game in town" with a variety of technologies looking to supplant the role of coal in electricity generation.

Coal does have one major drawback – Carbon Dioxide. Coal is essentially carbon, which when it is burnt in air releases useful heat and a not so friendly bi-product, Carbon Dioxide (CO2). We have now reached the point where the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is starting to cause some significant problems.