At a recent roundtable, I fielded a question about why coal persists as a dominant energy source. I remarked that coal is the self-destructive energy source we just cannot quit, despite the decades of research demonstrating its unsustainable environmental, health, social, and financial costs.

It causes biodiversity loss and environmental damage as forests are felled and mountains disfigured to clear surfaces. The mining process then releases numerous environmental toxins, including high amounts of mercury that can poison waterways, wildlife, and human populations. Both extracting and burning coal for use discharge carbon monoxide, carbon and sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, lead, arsenic, methane, and toxic heavy metals and soot that cause global warming and acid rain. The causal link between coal and climate change is clear.

Coal continues to imperil public health and social wellbeing. In addition to coal mines poisoning the land communities rely on, air pollution from coal-fired power plants causes asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, and neurological problems under certain conditions. Coal mining and processing remain one of the most dangerous professions. Although coal mining labor is highly regulated in the developed world, it is hugely unmonitored, and thus perilous, in the Global South. In terms of social costs at the local level, grievances occur when communities are displaced from land to make way for extraction sites or left uncompensated for mining-related losses. Particularly in developing countries, coal mining is linked to environmental injustice, gender-based violence, and labor exploitation, including that of children. All forms of mining often have unequal gender outcomes, with women less likely than men to find employment opportunities or leadership positions in the sector.

Coal’s popularity persists despite the indications that it is increasingly more expensive than alternative forms of energy. Most of the world’s surface-level “easy” coal has been mined already, forcing extraction from deeper underground, which increases costs. There are now cheaper fuels, including natural gas.

Coal is a powerful incumbent.

Sengupta (2018)

It would seem that if the environmental and health impacts of coal were not enough to end its use, at least the supposed laissez-faire principles of energy pricing would. Yet, the question remains in the face of its economic inefficiency, “Why is coal so hard to quit?” Because, as Sengupta (2018) describes it, coal is a “powerful incumbent.” It exists underground in a finite amount and eager companies–backed by powerful governments and esurient banks–are in a rush to access it as soon as possible. National electricity grids were designed for it and coal plants help politicians to deliver cheap electricity to voters. The coal mining industry employs about eight million people globally and creates revenues of more than US$900 billion a year. Coal use is unlikely to decline in the immediate, and reductions in the Global North are offset by growth in China, India, and other Asian countries, ensuring future demand.

Across Rwanda and other African countries I have visited, it is a key source of fuel and livelihood among the rural women who rely on it for cooking, and they aren’t provided with other alternatives.