Coal and future energy production

This briefing sheet aims to provide accurate and up to date information on current and future coal use in the UK and worldwide. 

The burning of coal generates around 41% of worldwide electricity
The burning of coal generates around 41% of worldwide electricity

Current use of coal


Coal is a solid fossil fuel with global reserves of over 100 years. Coal was the original fuel of the industrial revolution and continues to be a key energy source. It currently provides 30% of global primary energy needs and is used to generate 41% of worldwide electricity (World Coal Association, 2012). Total world coal production reached a record level of 7823Mt in 2013, increasing by 0.4% on the previous year (

Coal is mined in over 100 countries, across all continents except Antarctica. It is a widely available and affordable fuel. The largest reserves are found in the USA, Russia, China, India and Australia. Further data and statistics can be found on the World Coal Association website.


Coal consumption in the UK has fallen since the 1980s as the UK has been able to develop its North Sea oil and gas fields and complete a substantial nuclear electricity programme. Today the UK imports around three quarters of the coal it uses – the main sources being Russia, South Africa, Indonesia, Australia and Colombia. The UK total consumption is approximately 0.8% of global coal use.

In 2013 the UK produced 13m tonnes, imported 49m tonnes and consumed 60m tonnes, with the balance placed on coal stocks (DECC, 2014i). Electricity generation accounted for 83% of consumption, with coal providing 36% of total supply (DECC, 2014i). Although this level of consumption is about half the UK peak in the 1980s, it is still one of the main sources of energy for the UK. More information on UK coal production and consumption can be found on websites for UK Coal, the Confederation of United Kingdom Coal Producers and the Association of UK Coal Importers.

Challenges to future use of coal

Climate change

Burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Coal combustion for electricity generation has around twice the carbon dioxide emissions of gas per unit generated. In 2011, 44% of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion were produced from coal (IEA, 2013). In the longer term it will not be possible to deliver targets and programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and continue to burn coal at current levels.

One potential solution to this challenge is the installation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology which removes carbon dioxide from combustion emissions for permanent disposal underground. All of the several candidate techniques are at early stages of development and a wide range of R&D and pilot projects are underway worldwide. However, it is not yet clear whether this technology can be commercially viable. Further details can be found on ICE’s briefing sheet on CCS.

Acid gas emissions

In addition to greenhouse gases, during the combustion process coal fired power stations emit oxides of sulphur (SOx) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). These gases mix with water vapour and other substances in the atmosphere to form acid rain. This problem can be reduced through the use of low sulphur coal, the use of low NOx combustion technology and the introduction of flue cleaning technology.

Future use of coal


Over the next twenty years, worldwide energy demand is widely forecast to increase by over 40% with much of this increase in the developing world. The abundance of coal worldwide makes it a readily available source of heat energy for these countries. Even without CCS technology, coal use is therefore likely to grow substantially in the medium term. Unless CCS technology can be developed to a commercial stage, this continued expansion of coal will present a major challenge to greenhouse gas emission reductions. The coal industry recognises this challenge and considerable work is underway to develop solutions.


Electricity generation from coal is projected to decrease in the UK over the next 15 years (DECC, 2014ii). This is largely the result of UK and EU climate change policies. By 2030, all coal generation is expected to be fitted with CCS.

However, during the next 15 years existing coal will play a key role in maintaining security of supply in the UK during the transition to a low carbon electricity supply. UK coal stations are very flexible in their output. As the amount of wind generation on the system increases, the available supply is likely to become much more variable due to fluctuations in wind speeds. Coal stations can provide reserve capacity to fill in during low wind speed periods.


DECC (Department of Energy & Climate Change) (2014i) Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2014. London, UK.

DECC (Department of Energy & Climate Change) (2014ii) Updated Energy and Emissions Projections 2014. London, UK

IEA (International Energy Agency) (2013) CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion – Highlights. Paris, France.

World Coal Association (2012) Coal Matters – 1. Coal in the Global Energy Supply. London, UK.


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