Coal: China and Beyond

Abigail Lebovitz
April 13, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: Diagram explaining the typical structure of a coal power plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This past week at Stanford University, students have been camped out in the main quad outside of President Hennessy's office. Students are holding an indefinite protest against Stanford's involvement in supporting fossil fuels. Students hope to change the university's endowment and completely stop investments in oil and gas companies that contribute to climate change.

Outside of Stanford, conversations about the use of coal and other fossil fuels that emit greenhouses gases are happening around the globe. In two weeks, international climate negotiations will begin in Paris. The main goal of the conference is to discus how different countries can join to make a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the increasing air temperatures.

Coal, being one of the most relevant fossil fuels, has been a popular topic around the globe, along with at Stanford, about how to reduce coal combustion and the emission of harmful toxins into our environment. Chinese is currently the largest country for coal emissions and the country's coal emissions have been been controversial.

Coal's Impact on the Environment

Coal is plentiful and affordable around the world; however, it has a harsh impact on our environment. Majority of coal consumption around the world is used for electricity. In the United States, around 2/3 of carbon dioxide emissions come from coal combustion. The combustion of coal also results in the production of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and other byproducts that contribute to environmental harm, like smog, acid rain, or greenhouse gas, as well as human harm, including respiratory illnesses. [1]

The combustion of coal also emits methane into the atmosphere. Coal mining methane (CMM) has significant impacts on our environment, having a twenty three times greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide emissions. Figure 1 shows the general mechanism of coal power plants that are used to burn coal in order to produce electricity and as a byproduct emit methane. These plants are used around the world and in many countries provide most of the electrical energy.

Recent News of Coal Use in China

China is ranked highest for coal production and methane emissions. The country dominates world energy, ranking first in energy consumption, production, and imports. In 2013, they produced 1844.6 million tonnes of oil equivalent which is a significantly larger amount compared to production leaders in other continents for example 507.8 million tonnes produced by the U.S., 57.6 million tonnes produced by Columbia, and 170.9 million tonnes produced by the Russian Federation. Although coal accounts for a large portion China's energy production, the country's coal production actually decreased by 2.6% in 2013-2014, which was the world's largest volumetric decline. China also dominated coal consumption, consuming 1962.4 million tonnes oil equivalent in 2014, which was a .1% increase since 2013. [2] Despite positive trends in China toward less coal production and relatively constant consumption, many areas in the country are already affected by the environmental impacts. Many cities covered by "smog", which is full of toxins unhealthy for the environment as well as its inhabitants. In 2013, China burned 4.2 billion metric tons in 2013 - emissions that far exceed any other country. In China, coal serves as an easy and fast way for provinces to meet energy needs as well as stimulate local economy through generation of jobs and revenue. [3] Coal is central to China's economy, but is ruining the countries environment. As the government promises to try to reduce greenhouse gases by using more renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or hydropower, there is tension with the current coal-fired power plants that the country is currently continuing to build and expand. China must find a way to reduce their impact on global warming while still stimulating its economy.

Future of Coal?

Although China holds majority of the attention surrounding coal, coal combustion and its impact on the environment is a global issue. The United States is ranked second in coal emissions. Although the U.S. is focused on finding alternative energy sources, the country is still very reliant on coal for energy. In the upcoming weeks, Paris will be hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The main goal of the convention is discussions over reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Hopefully, in the upcoming conference and future discussion between global nations, humans will find a way to reduce global warming whether that be finding a cleaner way to combust coal or find new forms of energy production that can support the economy.

© Abigail Lebovitz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Coal," in UXL Encyclopedia of Science, 2nd Ed. (UXL, 2001).

[2] BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2015," British Petroleum, June 2015.

[3] E. Wong, Glut of Coal-Fired Casts Doubts on China's Energy Priorities," New York Times, 11 Nov 15.