Coal has played a long and important role in the development of modern society. The mineral first emerged as a fuel in Neolithic China, but its widespread use really started in medieval Britain, where coal was easily accessible in rock layers near the surface.
Britain’s extensive coal reserves propelled the industrial revolution as it first began in the early 19th century, and it was due to the unique availability of coal that Britain soon became the dominant industrial power of the 19th and early 20th
Similarly, coal power helped to power the incredible industrial growth in the rest of Europe in the mid-19th century, the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and China in the 20th century.
In the U.S., an enormous industry has grown around the extraction of coal, employing, at its peak in 1923, 863,000 Americans. Due to a variety of factors, including increased automation, declining coal reserves, declining demand from the shrinking American steel industry and increased environmental regulation, employment in the coal mining industry had fallen to 65,400 by 2015.
This drastic decline in employment has been regarded by many as the unnecessary death of the industry at the hand of climate change regulators. Donald Trump has been particularly friendly to coal, arguing that reviving the coal mining industry with clean coal technology could bring thousands of jobs back to the U.S.
Much to my disappointment, the argument against the “revival” of the coal industry has largely been the environmental one. It has been argued time and time again by those on the left that coal simply does too much harm to the environment for it to be a long term fuel source.
Those on the right have been for the most part unreceptive to this argument, either because they do not believe climate change to be man-made or because they feel that boosting employment is a much more urgent task than protecting the environment.
It frustrates me greatly that the public debate over coal has centered primarily on the issue of the environment. Regardless of whether or not you believe in climate change, you must recognize that coal is not a long term solution to the world’s energy problems.
The World Coal Association, a global coal lobby, notes on its own website that worldwide reserves of coal are enough to last just 110 years at current levels of global consumption.
If, as President Trump hopes, a global boom in coal consumption arrives on the back of clean coal technology, the lifetime of global reserves will fall even further. It does not take an economist to understand that a 110-year boom in employment does not constitute long-term growth.
To make matters worse, the more the U.S. increases its economic dependence on the coal mining industry, the more catastrophic and dangerous the eventual collapse of the industry becomes.
We, as Americans and as citizens of the globe, must realize that coal can no longer be viewed as a vehicle for the construction of great economic empires. Coal is not an engine for the world economy or a solution to the global energy deficiency; to treat it as either is like using a Band-Aid to mend a crack in a dam.