The recent mine disaster in Turkey has reminded me just how bad coal is.
a) Coal mining is dangerous. The death toll at Soma is now over 300. Some of that is clearly due to neglect of safety measures but those measures are necessary because coal mining is so dangerous. Fresh cut coal absorbs Oxygen and releases Methane (aka firedamp) creating risks of explosion and suffocation. Then there's all that rock overhead.
China has the most coal and has reduced accident deaths by a very creditable 80% since 2000. Still, official figures put the death toll at 1,049 for last year.
b) Burning coal generates extraordinary levels of air pollution. Researchers (Public health benefits of strategies to reduce
greenhouse –gas emissions: low carbon electricity generation. Lancet
374, 1917-29) have estimated avoidable deaths from electricity generation at 8,000 in the EU, over 100,000 in China and over 180,000 in India. Most of these deaths are due to coal.
c) And then there's climate change. Coal is the worst fossil fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The ultimate death toll as temperatures rise is essentially incalculable since it depends on future emissions, the response of the biosphere and the adaptation measures that we take. If, as seems likely, climate change reduces food production and we humans do not reduce inequality the number of deaths will plainly be in the millions.