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Coal is a variety of solid, combustible, sedimentary, organic rocks, formed from vegetation that has been consolidated between other rock strata and altered by the combined effects of pressure and heat over millions of years. Carbon is the main component of coal, which also contains varying amounts of other components, like hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur and other impurities. Main parameters used to define coal are calorific value, ash, moisture and sulphur. Many different classifications of coal are used around the world, reflecting a broad range of ages, composition and properties.
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Coal, the second source of primary energy (roughly 30%), is mostly used for power generation (over 40% of worldwide electricity is produced from coal). In addition, coal is used to produce virtually all non-recycled iron. Coal is abundant, affordable, easy to transport, store and use, plus free of geopolitical tensions; all these attributes made it very popular. On the other hand, pulverized coal plants are the most carbon-intensive source of power generation, and this is a real issue, as CO2 emissions need to be dramatically and urgently reduced. Whereas more efficient plants are built across the world, the transition from subcritical to supercritical (and ultra-supercritical) technology is very slow. And even worse news is that the dramatic reduction of CO2 emissions that our climate targets require is possible only through development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Progress on CCS is very disappointing.
Coal use took off during the Industrial Revolution and never stopped growing globally. Coal use will be significant also in the future. The IEA believes that greater efforts are needed by government and industry to embrace less polluting and more efficient technologies to ensure that coal becomes a much cleaner source of energy in the decades to come.