Coal mining revival threatens global warming targets

Governments around the world have considered expanding the use of coal during the current energy crisis, prompting energy experts to warn of an increase in greenhouse gas emissions that would result.

Coal mining releases methane gas trapped in rock strata, in addition to the carbon dioxide emitted when it is burned as fuel. The fight against carbon and methane emissions is essential to limit global warming. Temperatures have already risen by at least 1.1°C since pre-industrial times.

While methane is the second biggest cause of global warming, limiting leaks may be the most effective way to combat short-term warming because it traps much more heat than carbon over a shorter period.

New mine level data from Global Energy Monitor, a nongovernmental organization that tracks fossil fuel and renewable energy projects, found that operating coal mines emitted 52.3 million tonnes of methane in 2021. That’s more than the gas (45 million tons) and oil (39 million tons) and is 10 million tons more than the estimates of the International Energy Agency.

More than 100 countries signed a pledge at the recent United Nations climate summit to cut methane pollution by 30% by 2030, but several major contributors to global emissions, including China, Russia and the India, were not signatories.

China, the world’s largest national emitter, remains the largest producer and consumer of coal and accounts for 73% of all coal mine methane emissions, according to GEM data.

In Europe, mines in Poland and Russia are among the main emitters. Until the current crisis, Russia provided 50% of Germany’s coal imports.

Gif showing coal mine methane emission reductions needed below net zero 2030

The type of coal and the depth of mining have a great influence on emissions. Particularly deep mines in Poland release about the same amount of methane as mines in Indonesia, which produce more than five times the amount of coal.

There are 465 new mines or mine extensions being developed around the world which together could emit an additional 11.3 million tonnes of methane per year. If only mines currently under construction opened, they would still introduce about half of these emissions.

GEM data on coal mining emissions is higher than IEA estimates, suggesting even deeper reductions are needed to stay in line with targets to reach net zero emissions by 2030 .

According to GEM, the world’s most gassy coal mines can emit 67 times more methane than mines of similar productivity. Removing the worst performing quartile of coal mines could remove more than 20 million tonnes of methane emissions, says the IEA.

GEM says the only way to stay in line with the IEA’s net zero roadmap to 2050 is through “unprecedented new regulations on coal mining methane emissions”, as well as the pure and simple cancellation of new mining projects.

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Teresa H. Sadler