coal: the dirtiest of fossil fuels, but who are the coal culprits?

we rank the countries that generate more electricity from coal (the dirtiest fossil fuel) than they do from renewable energy sources. We then look at how their coal usage compares with their commitments that they made in the paris climate agreement at cop21.

why pick on coal?

of all the fossil fuels used in power generation coal is the dirtiest, emitting the most kg CO2 /kwh (kilowatt-hour)

the coal emissions per kwh vary depending on the source.  so, for the sake of ease I will make the acceptably accurate assumption that for every kwh of electricity generated, coal emits 1kg CO2 into the atmosphere i.e. 1.0 kg CO2 /kwh.

again, data sources vary on the emissions from natural gas but if you assume it is around 0.3 kg CO2 /kwh you won’t be too far wrong.

coal emissions

in 2018 global emissions from coal fired power generation rose 2.9% to over 10 gigatonnes (gt). this is more than one quarter of total annual global CO2 emissions, including transport, industry, belching cows and all.

if one couples replacing coal-fired power generation with renewable energy sources and reforesting the tropical rainforests to the levels in the 1950’s net carbon it would reduce emissions by more than 50%.

biggest culprits

so which countries are the primary offenders? the table below shows the 10 countries that firstly meet the threshold of 250,000 gWh (gigawatt-hour = 1 million kWh) of total electricity generation per year (2017 data) and secondly generate more from coal than from renewables. it ranks them in order of ratio of coal generated energy to energy generated from renewables (not including nuclear)

countrypower (gwh) generated fromgeneration ratio of
coalRenewablescoal : renewables
South Africa226,71013,75016.5
South Korea255,50923,61710.8

what is the prospect of changing?

the table below shows the commitments called nationally determined contributions (ndc) under the paris agreement. these originated from the conference of parties meeting in paris in 2015 (cop21 paris). based on 2017 figures (the most complete data) it outlines the size of the reduction needed in mt (megatonnne = 1 million tonnes) to meet their ndc targets (estimations from a number of available data sources). it then compares this with the reductions that they would achieve if they just replaced coal as a generation fuel with renewable energy sources.

countryndc from the paris agreementemissions reduction (mt) by
meeting ndcreplacing coal
South AfricaEmissions between 398 and 614 Mt CO2e between 2025 and 2030120,000226,710
South Korea37% reduction in emissions by 2030239,993255,509
Indonesia29% reduction in emissions by 2030398,921147,875
India33% reduction of 2005 levels by 2030609,9451,133,627
Australia26% reduction of 2005 levels by 203082,860161,830
ChinaCut emissions /unit of GDP by 60% of 2005 levels by 20308,285,8104,508,568
USAPulled out of Paris Climate Agreement01,321,421
Japan26% reduction over 2013 levels by 2030239,169351,830
Turkey21% reduction in emissions by 2030297,230113,249
Germany40% reduction in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030159,617252,824
Total(excluding USA)10,350,7667,152,022

noteworthy pondering points:

  • the usa withdrew from the paris agreement in 2017.
  • The global CO2 (all countries) emissions from coal in 2017 amounted to around 9.9 Gt CO2 e (Gt = gigatonne = 1 billion tonnes). the top 10 offenders (including the usa) above constitute 85% of that total
  • as a group, if the 9 of the top 10 who remained within the paris agreement were to convert coal power generation into renewable energy generation, they would achieve nearly 70% of their ndc without doing anything else.
  • 6 of the 9 would more than achieve their ndc if they were to replace coal with renewable energy sources.
  • since 2017 the use of coal has shown a decline in power generation. low natural gas prices and more recently the coronavirus pandemic have driven this decline. on 11th february 2020 power generation from coal was surpassed by that of renewable energy in the usa. while promising it remains to be seen if this continues when the economy re-opens.

final thoughts with a final question:

  • the removal of just one fossil fuel can achieve most of the reductions in the paris agreement.
  • the paris agreement reduction of the Top 10 (or 9) only takes us around a quarter of the way to global net carbon neutrality (around 40 gt CO2 e)
  • the deadline for all countries, under the paris agreement, to phase out coal is not until 2040.
  • did the paris climate agreement concede too much to economic interests?

data disclaimer

as ever with climate change data you can look at 10 different data sources and come up with 12 different figures. so, while I have done my best with the accuracy of the data it is at best directional. but it is sufficiently accurate to illustrate the points being made. also, I have used 2017 data as this is the most up to date complete data that covers all the countries

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jim @selvador

jim @selvador

having spent 30 years in the food supply chain i have become very aware of the need for environmental balance. for me the protection of the rainforests is the key to preserving that balance


  • This is a very informative article Jim, thank you. I think the frustration is that these governments may well be funding vanity project renewable schemes, offsetting deals for corporates and finessing the edges with electric car points while Rome quite literally burns (although Italy is not on the list!) when that money would be far better directed with a single coal-goal in mind…

    • Couldn’t agree more Jacqui. I think much of what we are trying to do here is point out that we only need to concentrate on a small number of priority issues, the top 2 being reforestation and coal replacement and we are more than half way to global net emission neutrality. It does not have to be a scatter gun approach where the environmental lobby spreads itself so thin that it becomes ineffective in the face of corporate and financial interests. I see that there is now a process for steel making (which is the other big coal user) that uses hydrogen rather than coke to reach the required temperatures. This would allow us to consign coal to the 19th century where it belongs.

  • While the less wealthy mistakenly continue to put right wing govts in power cos they seemingly believe their often overly wealthy MP’s have an ability to create wealth that will rub off on them the fossil fuel industry (and its ilk) will continue to be subsidised by right wing Govts. their politicians not wishing to loose their industry ‘backhanders’! Cynical you betcha, ashamed of NZ under National (Tory by any other name) cos while we barely contributed 0.17% of total world emissions, per capita we are right up there at around 7th in the world emissions production! Let’s hope recent changes under our now Labour Govt make a difference!

    • Lindsey, I share your frustrations. However I always unsuccessfully try to separate politics from economics as I find it is the only way to take the tribal emotions out of the debate. I agree that the politicians towards the right are much more successful at capturing the populist vote because they are much more effective than the centre and the left at tapping into the electorate’s emotions. So I would say it is more a matter of ‘wake up the centre and the left’ as it is any machiavellian tactics that the right are putting into play. From an economic viewpoint, I feel that courtesy of Messrs Reagan and Thatcher global economics have swung too far towards neoliberalism in the last 40 years which has allowed the unchecked and often reckless behaviour of the financial and fossil fuel corporations among others to take place. I am not a devout Keynesian but I feel that there is a balance somewhere in between the 2. I love the phrase from Nick Hanauer in his TED talk ( where he says ‘An economy should be a garden and not a jungle it needs tending’. I believe that too many countries have been living in economic jungles over the last 40 years. I don’t think until we get more balanced economies will lobbies such as the fossil fuel lobby be excluded from political life. Only then, in my view, will we see a concerted attack on emissions.

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