Coal in pictures

Updated on 04.17.2023
Middle School

5 min read

Dessin en noir et blanc illustrant des morts et de blessés remontés à la surface après la catastrophe du puits de charbon de Jabin, Treuil, Saint-Etienne, France.

1. A very long history

Starting at the end of the 17th century in Europe, mining provided the basis for the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. It deeply marked countries' social history and its attendant firedamp explosions were tragic, recurring features in the lives of miners and their families. The Jabin mine (shown here) in France's Loire basin was the site of two successive disasters: in 1871 (70 fatalities) and in 1876 (186 fatalities). Underground mining accidents still claim hundreds of casualties each year.

Photo aérienne montrant la centrale de Jiangsu Huadian Yangzhou en Chine.

2. Leading fuel for power generation

Coal remains a widely-used resource, particularly to generate in huge thermal plants. Its combustion produces steam, which is used to rotate turbines. With a share of nearly 40%, it is the largest source of electricity generation worldwide ahead of gas. Coal is the second greatest source of in the world (30%), behind oil, and the leading for power generation (40%). While some countries like France and the United Kingdom have closed their last mines, others continue to produce and use coal, including China, the United States, India, Australia, Poland and Germany. The photo shows the Yangzhou plant (in the Chinese province of Jiangsu), with its four cooling towers and steam plumes.

Pays-Bas, Rotterdam, Fumée s'élevant d'une centrale électrique au charbon.

3. Coal, a major source of CO2 emissions

Coal has a very high carbon content and is crushed and burned at 1,200°C. It then combines with oxygen and emits CO2, one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for . In late 2021, coal-fired power generation was the primary source of carbon emissions worldwide according to the International Energy Agency. A coal plant emits twice as much CO2 as a gas plant. The picture shows the chimney of the Onyx Power coal plant in Rotterdam (the Netherlands).

Jeune chinois portant un masque à cause de la pollution de l’air à Pékin.

4. Coal, source of air pollution

Thermal power plants and the use of coal in the industry, particularly in places where plants are in disrepair, cause air pollution due to fine particles, which are a real health hazard. In addition to the issue of CO2, the need to improve air quality is driving the Chinese authorities to modernize their plants and to find alternative energy sources.

Des ouvriers observant une mine à ciel ouvert dans la haute vallée de Hunter, Australie.

5. Major environmental impacts

Coal extraction, from either underground or open-pit mines, necessarily has an in mining regions. Open-pit mining is very common nowadays as it is less costly and the working conditions are, in theory, less risky. However, open-pit mining is less acceptable from an environmental standpoint because it disfigures the landscape and often causes dust pollution. The photo shows the Hunter Valley mine, in New South Wales, Australia

La mine de Morwell, dans l'Etat de Victoria, en Australie, en est à son quatrième niveau d'excavation.

6. Open-pit mining

Open-pit mines are organized in terraces, rather like a sports stadium. Once the earth above the first has been removed, coal extraction can begin. After the seam has been depleted, miners dig down to the next layer. The photo shows the Morwell mine in Victoria State, Australia, where the fourth layer is being mined.

Illustration d’une excavatrice géante.

7. Impressive machinery

Huge excavators extract the coal. Some of them are over 200 meters long and higher than a thirty-story building. The buckets on the excavators can hold up to 300 metric tons of rock.

Illustration d’une galerie de charbon

8. The room-and-pillar method

Coal is very often mined underground. Vertical shafts are dug to reach the deposits. In each coal seam a series of large pillars are placed at regular intervals to support the mine roof. The shafts connect to a grid of huge galleries (10- to 20-square-meter sections) that can extend over dozens of kilometers.

Illustration d’une haveuse

9. The longwall method

Another technique involves using a machine called a that looks like a huge plow. The shearer slowly pushes and cuts through the coalface. It recovers the loosened ore as it advances and lets the roof collapse behind it. This is called caving. However the technique can weaken the subsurface and produce surface disruptions.

Une photo aérienne montrant les grandes machines qui empilent et stockent le charbon au terminal charbonnier du port de Lianyungang, Chine.

10. China, the world's leading producer and consumer

China consumes as much coal as all other countries combined. Even though it is a leader in development, China continues to add to the number of coal plants – admittedly with more modern and effective units – to meet its substantial energy requirements to sustain its strong growth. China also relies on imports and its main ports (here the port of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province) welcome ships from Australia and Russia. India and South Africa are also large consumers of coal.

Illustration d’une mine au Wyoming, Etats-Unis

11. Decline in American coal production

The United States is the world's second largest coal producer, ahead of India and Australia. But while American coal represented nearly 50% of the energy consumed to produce electricity in 2007, its share had fallen to 20% by 2022. This is attributable to the emergence of production, which boosted the share of gas in American electricity generation from 20% to 36%. Renewable energies (hydraulic, wind, solar) have progressed a great deal (24%). In the photo, a mine in Wyoming.

Des militants protestent sur le site de la mine à ciel ouvert de Garzweiler, en prévision de la destruction imminente du village de Luetzerath, Allemagne.

12. The revival of coal in Germany

By depriving Germany of Russian gas, the war in Ukraine indirectly revived coal production in the country, which had in fact been maintained to mitigate the phase-out of . Among other things, German plants use , a material somewhere between peat and coal. is produced in open-pit mines that spread over hundreds of hectares, sometimes leading to the demolition of villages, such as the Garzweiler mine in Western Germany. Environmental activists gathered near the giant excavators, with a wind farm in the background.

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