Why Is Coal Important To Society, & What Do We Use It For The Most?

In the guide below, we outline how and why coal is important to society

We also identify what we use it for the most across different industries/sectors and applications in society.


Summary – Why/How Coal Is Important To Society, & What We Use It For The Most

In the past, coal and other fossil fuels (like oil and natural gas) have been responsible for a lot of the industrial and economic growth we have seen in many developed countries (By 1900, coal consumption had increased significantly, accounting for almost half of global energy – ourworldindata.org)

At present, coal is still heavily used as an energy source in many of these countries.

China is one example of a major country who relies on coal for majority of it’s energy

Coal provides jobs, incomes and economic growth, among other benefits such as providing a backup or complementary power source to renewables, and providing a cheap/affordable form of electricity where required.

It can also help countries gain more energy independence (from other countries) where required.

Major power grids around the world are currently set up with their infrastructure to receive energy from fossil fuel energy

We even use coal and coking coal in steel production (and use coal as an ingredient in other products we use in society)

[Read more about the different types of coal and their uses in this guide]

Where countries in the past haven’t had the technology or logistical requirements to move to renewables or nuclear, coal has been a good option.

Also, where countries want more energy independence over relying on foreign energy (such as natural gas from Russia), coal can be useful

The negatives and trade offs of coal are numerous though (it would be irresponsible to publish this article without mentioning them) – with some of the major ones being the social and environmental impact of coal mining, and air pollution (via air contaminants and toxins) and greenhouse gas emissions caused by the combustion/burning of coal.

Global warming has it’s own set of consequences, but air pollution (when air quality reaches a certain level or specific toxins reach a certain concentration) leads to human health problems (with the lungs and heart) and even environmental problems like acid rain.

Coal waste (coal ash) also need to be treated and managed, or the heavy metals can do damage to soil and water (and eventually wildlife) if it’s simply dumped or left untreated/uncontained

Even though coal provides many economic benefits, many people argue the drawbacks and damage it does as an energy source far outweigh those benefits, and we should move to cleaner forms of energy


Why Is Coal Important To Society?

Coal is one of the three main fossil fuels, and overall, it’s estimated fossil fuels are still used in 96% of the things we use everyday.

We’ve used coal heavily in the past to build economies and societies, and continue to use it today.


What Do We Use Coal For The Most In Society?

Electricity generation is the main thing we use coal for, followed by the production and manufacturing of materials like steel and cement.


Sectors That Use The Most Coal


Worldwide … the most significant uses of coal are in electricity generation, steel production, cement manufacturing and as a liquid fuel (worldcoal.org)


Coal supplies a third of all energy used worldwide and makes up 38% of electricity generation, as well as playing a crucial role in industries such as iron and steel (iea.org)


United States

According to eia.gov, in the US in 2017, of all coal consuming sectors:

[Electric power used the most coal of all sectors at 92.7%, with industrial at second at 7.1%]

[The other sectors that followed industrial, in order, were, industrial coke plants, industrial combined heat and power, other industrial, commercial and then residential and transportation]


Pros & Cons Of Coal Energy

As mentioned above, some of the major benefits of coal energy are cheap/affordable electricity, being able to develop economies and industrial sectors, provision of jobs at coal mines and at coal power plants, and of course provision of incomes.


One of the other uncommonly mentioned pros of using coal energy is that it helps countries with energy independence:

… like renewables, [coal has the advantage of] being a domestic source of energy, particularly appealing for Germany and Poland, both keen to cut their dependence on Russian gas.

– unearthed.greenpeace.org


Read a more complete list of pros and cons of coal energy in this guide.


How Much Power & Electricity Coal Provides Worldwide

Some 27% of primary energy needs are met by coal and 38% of electricity is generated from coal.

About 70% of world steel production depends on coal feedstock.

Coal is the world’s most abundant and widely distributed fossil fuel source.

– world-nuclear.org


[In 2017, oil, coal and natural gas lead worldwide primary energy consumption, providing 53, 43, and 35 thousand TWh respectively. The next closest is traditional biofuels at 10 thousand TWh]

– ourworldindata.org


How Much Power Coal Provides In The United States

The three major fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—combined accounted for about 77.6% of the U.S. primary energy production in 2017:

Natural gas—31.8%

Petroleum (crude oil and natural gas plant liquids)—28.0%


Renewable energy—12.7%

Nuclear electric power—9.6%

You can read more about the United States’ energy use and production in this guide.

– eia.gov, bettermeetsreality.com


How Much Power Coal Provides In China

In 2016, coal made up 62 percent of China’s energy use. Since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world combined.

In 2015, most of China’s energy and coal use came from the industrial sector, with 67.9 percent of the country’s energy use and 54.2 percent of its coal use due to manufacturing, agriculture, and construction.

An additional 41.8 percent of China’s coal consumption came from power production activities.

You can read more about China’s energy use and production in this guide.

– chinapower.csis.org, bettermeetsreality.com


How Much Power Coal Provides In Other Countries

You can read more about the energy source breakdown in some other major countries in the world in this guide.

Just as one example, India’s primary energy consumption was made up of more than 50% coal in 2018.


Countries That Use The Most Coal

China is by far the biggest consumer of coal by a significant margin.


According to statista.com, China used the most coal in 2017, and it used 4 times more coal than the second placed India. The US was third.


The top ten coal consuming countries account for over 85% of the world’s total coal consumption, with China alone consuming as much as rest of the world together (mining-technology.com)


What Is The Future Trend For Coal Use?

According to some reports, looking into the future, some countries and parts of the world like China, India and Southeast Asia are expected to increase coal consumption at least in the short term, while other countries are already transitioning more into natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy.




1. http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/clean-coal-technologies.aspx

2. https://ourworldindata.org/energy-production-and-changing-energy-sources

3. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides

4. https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2014/08/28/five-reasons-expanding-brown-coal-mines-might-problem/

5. https://www.statista.com/statistics/265510/countries-with-the-largest-coal-consumption/ 

6. https://www.worldcoal.org/coal/uses-coal 

7. https://www.mining-technology.com/features/featurethe-worlds-biggest-coal-consumers-4353695/ 

8. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=coal_use 

9. https://www.iea.org/topics/coal/

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