Living in a society that targets sustainable development goals, we are stuck in several traditional practices. The switch from non-renewable to renewable energy resources has been the talk of the town for decades. However, we still need to find answers as to why we cannot completely eradicate the use of coal, a non-renewable resource, in energy production?
“Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.“
– James Hansen.
Coal is the cheapest fossil fuel; substantial industrial setups consume a significant amount of coal for various purposes. Mainly, coal is used for electrical energy production. The US Energy Administration stated that in 2019, coal-fired power plants produced approx. 23% of total electricity in the US. A significant reason is that almost 1/4th of the total coal reserves are in the United States. Coal-generated electricity is used for different purposes such as heating, cooking, transportation, and farming.
Furthermore, certain realities of coal are utilized in steel production. Coal varieties used for this purpose have a high carbon and low moisture content. Additionally, coal is employed in manufacturing cement, carbon fibers, synthetic petroleum-based fuels, and tars.
Coal extraction, transport and management generate numerous employment opportunities that assist economic growth. Developed countries with humongous coal reserves utilize it the most as they do not need to import other resources for energy production, which asset aids in GDP stabilization. Perhaps these are the target reasons why coal is employed for energy production.
Irrespective of the potential benefits coal confers, its drawbacks are worse. Coal is a non-renewable energy resource. The rate at which coal is employed for energy production globally to meet the demands of the growing population, we might run out earlier than expected. Such practices do not align with the future’s sustainable development goals.
The potential hazards of coal utilization for energy production include pollution (water and land), high radiation and carbon emission, and health concerns. We will focus on each of the mentioned aspects and analyze how they aggravate the damage in the present and near-future of this planet.
Pollution is the most immediate and detrimental result of coal utilization for energy production. Air pollution and land, water, and noise pollution are generated during coal mining and coal waste dumping, respectively.
Coal power plants produce ash, a leftover product of burned coal. Approximately 100 million tons of coal are produced annually. A copious amount of this results in water bodies such as streams, lakes, and rivers polluting them. Moreover, underground water supplies are also contaminated, posing a threat to clean water. During coal mining, oil leaks and acid drainage jeopardize both marine and land ecosystems. Furthermore, coal mining, extraction, and processing is a source of noise pollution disturbing the nearby ecosystems and residential areas.
If we peak closer, land pollution is another defiling outcome of coal extraction. It removes a thick topsoil layer, reducing land fertility. It disrupts the natural habitat of wild animals, erodes the alluvial soil layer, and damages the natural topographical landscape of the region.
Air pollution is another repercussion of coal extraction. Sulfur dioxide, a potent byproduct of coal processing, when released in the air, causes acid rain. It can associate with other minute particles in the air and penetrate the lungs, leading to asthma and bronchitis. Smog is another byproduct of toxic gases released in the atmosphere.
Nitrous oxides, another toxic gas, are released, alleviating breathing problems. Over time, nitrous oxide exposure can enhance the susceptibility to chronic respiratory diseases such as influenza and pneumonia.
Carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning are a crucial player in global warming. Every gram of coal that is burned, on average, produces 4 grams of carbon dioxide. Methane, a gas 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide, is also released due to coal mining. It traps heat hence upsurges the daily temperatures on the planet’s surface.
Once all these noxious gases enter the atmosphere, they add greenhouse gases that scar the ozone layer, increasing the average daily temperatures. The aftermath of ozone depletion and high average temperatures is exhausting. Melting of glaciers, flooding, and surface runoff create havoc at domestic and industrial levels. Such humongous fluctuations in the environment or atmosphere also drive a shift in climatic change.
Coal miners are exposed to numerous poisonous and heavy radioactive matter such as uranium and thorium. Frequent and prolonged exposure to such radioactive matter can lead to a pool of diseases such as skin cancer, acute and chronic respiratory disorders, and vision problems.
The longer we as a community rely on renewable energy resources, particularly coal, the more we reduce our quality of life. This planet needs us, and for all the right reasons, we need it too. The future is green energy, sustainability, renewable energy.
Maira Masood is a BS Biosciences student at NUST, Pakistan. She aspires to be a geneticist and wants to play an active part in spreading scientific awareness through writings.