Coal Is Not Going Away: Gellert and Ciccantell


The prospects for the prevention of catastrophic ecological damage are not encouraging.

You, the reader, probably know many of the problems already.

Consumers who refuse to lower their rates of energy use.

Industrial interests who stymie legislation designed to reduce their energy use.

Conservatives who have taken a principled position against ecological preservation.

The list goes on.

That said, Paul Gellert of the University of Tennessee and Paul Ciccantell of Western Michigan University, have just added another obstacle to ecological reform to the list.

The obstacle they note is the persistence of coal.

Gellert and Ciccantell have an article, “Coal’s Persistence in the World Economy” published in the Summer 2020 edition of Sociology of Development, which has a simple but awful message. There is no indication at the global level that coal is being replaced by any cleaner forms of energy.

From a strictly ecological standpoint, reducing the use of coal is desirable. The burning of coal releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane both of which contribute to global warming. Coal is sooty and produces vast amounts of air pollution. The air pollution contributes substantially to respiratory disease. Coal combustion contributes to acid rain, and puts all sorts of unpleasant contaminants into local water supplies.

In the United States, we are experiencing a phasing out of coal. Coal consumption has been dropping since 2000, and coal production has been dropping since 2010. There have been comparable drops in Europe. British coal production has been declining since the Great Depression. German coal production peaked under the Nazis. These countries have all seen reductions in coal consumption as well.

From an American and European perspective, you can tell a happy-happy story. Coal is getting progressively more expensive. The easy to reach deposits have been largely depleted. Coal is increasingly located in lower-yielding more-difficult placements that are harder and less profitable to mine. Other forms of energy are posing viable alternatives. Some – like shale oil or natural gas – are not particularly environmentally friendly. Others, like solar or wind power, are more sustainable.

Unfortunately, the happy-happy story gets smashed if one looks at global coal consumption. The world is consuming more than twice the amount of coal it was consuming in 1980. The reductions in coal consumption that have occurred in the United States and Europe have been dwarfed by vast increases in coal consumption in the rest of the world. Japan was the first major non-Western coal consumer. But current coal consumption is dominated by China and India. Japan has doubled its coal consumption since 1980. India has increased its consumption of coal ninefold in the same period. China only increased its consumption sixfold. However, the sheer size of the Chinese industrial economy means that China consumes the majority of the coal burnt in the world today.

Why has so much of the Global South turned to dirty sources of energy?

China and India have their own coal deposits. (China’s domestic coalfields are both sizable and well suited to industrial uses). Coal consumption has also been facilitated by a vast global increase in the coal trade. Japan, which has little coal, innovated in finding technologies that could work with a coal supply that is nearly 100% imported. Heavy industry is intentionally located on the coastline in areas with good harborage. The plan from the outset was that coal would intentionally be brought in by barge from overseas. China and India have scrupulously followed the Japanese model. Even with their own domestic coal supplies – their heavy industry is all coastal with excellent harborage and bulk storage capacity. They supplement their coal supplies with large shipments from Australia, Indonesia and Canada.

Japanese style industrialization with imported coal has been facilitated by the dramatic reduction in transportation costs that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The inefficiencies in the sea trade of the early age of steam meant that Victorian England could never have afforded to get coal from overseas. Modern super-barges and supertankers mean that today’s China can afford to get heavy inputs from anywhere.

But why bother shipping coal halfway around the world when other power sources might theoretically be available?

Gellert and Ciccantell claim, and I believe they are right, that the critical issue is global demand for STEEL.

Other energy sources are available to run electric lights, power cars and trucks and heat homes and buildings.

However, steelmaking is different. Gas, solar or nuclear just won’t do the job. Blast furnaces require coal.

The world is still essentially made up of steel products. Cars are steel. Buildings have steel frameworks. Ships are steel. Tools are steel. Steel cables underlie the highways of the world. There is no serious discussion of swapping steel for some other raw material of fabrication.

It is not even clear that doing such a swap out would be ecologically desirable. The primary major alternative to steel is plastic. Plastic is made out of petroleum. The creation of plastic requires almost as much energy as the making of steel. Wood is not much better in industrial manufacture. One can’t build a car or an engine out of wood. Even if more wood were to be used in the fabrication of buildings or of implements, increased production of wood would require increasing global deforestation.

We are wedded to steel. That means we are wedded to coal.

If we are wedded to coal, we are wedded to global warming.

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American liberals are currently frustrated with Senators Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell for their stalwart defense of the coal industries in their states. It is true without American conservatives providing support for the coal industry, America’s coal industry would be shrinking faster. It is already shrinking even with Senatorial support.

But even if Bernie Sanders were to choose every Congressman and Senator in the country, and even if America were to go all in on solar power and wind, coal consumption would continue to be high. China is the epicenter of global manufacturing. India is doing its best to get a share of that business.

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The people of the world could just choose to consume less.

If they were to use less steel, factories would make less steel.

The same applies for gasoline and for the consumption of endangered species of fish.

The world consuming less would do a lot to save our planet.

Think American or Chinese or Indian consumers intend to cut back on their consumption any time soon?

You make the call.