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Coal’s Double Jeopardy: The Overlooked Impact on Forests

Words by Leon Kaye

Here in the U.S., coal has fallen out of favor the past several years due to cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas, but it is still one of the most popular sources of fuel on the planet. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates it provides 30 percent of the world’s energy, only second to oil. Coal is also the base of 40 percent of the world’s electricity generation. And why wouldn’t coal be used? It is easy to source and transport, is cheap and, unlike oil, it is not beholden to geopolitical conflict. No one ever sniffed at a wad of cash and dismissed it as “coal money.”

But coal is also a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution worldwide, as photos from China, the world’s largest coal producer, have starkly reminded us in recent years. The coal industry has pointed to technologies such as “clean coal” plants and carbon capture and storage, but technology has not kept up with demand. And with global leaders currently in Paris trying to hammer out a climate deal during the COP21 talks, coal in many ways has become a fuel of the past.

To that end, a Dutch NGO, Fern, has issued a report that advocates turning away from coal -- not for the typically stated reasons, but because of the impact the loss of land, as in forests, has on the world’s climate when they are transformed into coal mines. According to Fern’s researchers, the loss of land to coal production, especially in Canada, India, Indonesia and Australia, lead to “double jeopardy.” Not only is that newly produced coal contributing to climate change and air pollution, but the loss of forests also poses an additional danger to the planet.

Fern's analysis suggests that almost 12 million hectares (about 46,000 square miles) of forest, a land mass larger than Portugal, are at risk of of being cleared to make way for coal mines. Much of that risk, insists Fern, is concentrated in a few countries:

  • Over 5,000 square miles in Australia, the equivalent of 2.1 million football fields. Concerns over the impact of coal mining have led to protests and even the arrest of Australian rugby star David Pocock.

  • In Canada, over 4,200 square miles of forest are threatened in British Columbia alone.

  • Almost 3,300 square miles in Indonesia, or 9 percent of that country’s forest cover. The rush to mine coal, according to many sources, has led to “land grabs” and devastation for indigenous populations who have lived in central Borneo for generations.

Fern’s report goes on to cover the multiple effects that would result if all this forest were to be converted into land for coal production. In addition to the millions of tons of sequestered carbon that these forests would emit into the atmosphere, the roads, new mining camps and other developments necessary for coal mining would also create more air pollution and contribute more greenhouse gas emissions.

So, what is the solution? According to Fern, the evidence suggests that the best stewards of these forests are the people who live within and near them. With its estimate that 1.6 billion people, including 60 million indigenous people, worldwide are dependent on forests for their livelihoods, Fern suggests more local control and stronger protections of land tenure rights. And while Fern does not offer alternative sources of energy for this coal that would otherwise be kept below ground, readers of this report will be left thinking that a real solution derived in Paris, and continued investment in clean energy and technologies, are needed more than ever.

Image credit: Andrew Taylor/WDM (Flickr)

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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