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Baby, it’s coal outside: a brief history of the dirty fossil fuel

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Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg gestures during a press conference ‘with Fridays For Future movement’ at the COP25 Climate Conference on December 09, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old climate activist who has been thundering against the powers-that-be and the devastating effects of the climate crisis, has been named – the youngest ever – TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year.

Of Thunberg, TIME’s journalists Charlotte Alter, Suyin Haynes and Justin Worland write: “Out there, the entire natural world seems to amplify her small voice, screaming along with her. ‘We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow,’ she says, tugging on the sleeve of her blue sweatshirt. That is all we are saying.”

Back home, load shedding stages 2, 4 and 6 are now beating South Africa’s electricity drum, coal is wet, Eskom sent a letter “unreservedly” apologising to the nation and Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe mutters: “It’s fashionable to attack coal,” on national TV.

In this newsletter, we dig a little deeper into the history of coal, where it comes from, when it became a source of energy and when it turned into the fuel that helped push the world to the precipice.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” – Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos

An advertisement for The Star newspaper carries a headline about electricity supplier Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. in load shedding blackouts in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014. (Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On the edge of disaster

Give me the back story. According to the Fossil Energy Study Guide published by the US Energy Department, and written like a bedtime story to frighten your kids: “Coal was formed millions of years ago, before the dinosaurs. Back then, much of the earth was covered by huge swamps. They were filled with giant ferns and plants. As the plants died, they sank to the bottom of the swamps. Over the years, thick layers of plants were covered by dirt and water. They were packed down by the weight. After a long time, the heat and pressure changed the plants into coal.” And voilà. Coal.

Ok. Then what? Then, the 1800s happened and people started using coal to heat their homes; the trains and ships turned coal into fuel, “factories used coal to make iron and steel” and two centuries later, Eskom still uses coal – when not wet – to make electricity.

How does it work? Extracted and milled to a fine powder, coal is then burnt; the steam produced, under tremendous pressure, flows into a turbine, which spins a generator creating electricity. 

Seems simple. Well, not really but, as Somini Sengupta explained in the New York Times, “it’s there by the millions of tons under the ground. Powerful companies, backed by powerful governments, often in the form of subsidies, are in a rush to grow their markets before it is too late. Banks still profit from it. Big national electricity grids were designed for it.”  

Ah. Big business. Yes, and coal is still a big contributor to electricity generation worldwide.  

How much? In South Africa, about 80%.

It’s a lot. Yep. Globally it’s about 38%, although, not-so-fun fact, in 2018, coal-power generation increased by 3% around the world.

That’s bad? It is. According to the mitigation goals that came out of the Paris Agreement/IPCC, the burning of coal is responsible for 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total  greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector. The global coal emissions should still peak in 2020 .

Is South Africa a big culprit? Sadly, yes. South Africa is the world’s 7th largest coal producer. China is the biggest consumer of coal in the world.

So we don’t have other options? Oh, we do. Windmills, solar power, hydropower…  

Er… What are we waiting for? It is a “difficult task”, says Minister of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry, Barbara Creecy in Episode 6 of On the Edge of Change.


 A rare and endangered blue whale, one of at least four feeding 11 miles off Long Beach Harbor in the Catalina Channel, spouts near offshore oil rigs after a long dive July 16, 2008 near Long Beach, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Taxonomy of fossil fuels

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council

Fossil fuels are formed by natural process, “from the fossilized, buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.”


Coal is the only solid fossil fuel and the most abundant of them all. It seems to have been used the longest as well, with archaeologists finding evidence of it being used during the second and third centuries (100- 200 AD). But the Industrial Revolution was coal’s biggest spark, injecting it into humans’ lifestyle to produce heat, energy or electricity. 

Petroleum (aka crude oil)

Petroleum started its commercial life as a whale oil replacement in lamps. Found underground through drilling, petroleum is transformed – among other things – into gasoline, propane, kerosene and … plastics.

Natural gas

Two types: Conventional and unconventional. The former is “located in porous and permeable rock beds or mixed into oil reservoirs and can be accessed via standard drilling”. To get to unconventional gas is a tad more complex and requires a special technique: fracking.


 Minerals Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe joined Sasol’s, Bongani Nqwababa and Stephen Cornell during a Sasol Shondoni colliery inauguration on July 05, 2018 near Secunda. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

Is it a thing, ‘clean coal’?

Journalist Deborah Tedford explains in an article for NPR that, “Coal emits pollutants, including sulfur compounds, ash and carbon dioxide. ‘Clean coal’ is a broad term referring to a variety of technologies that reduce the emission of pollutants, through treatment or processing of the coal, changing the way it is burned, or sequestering the pollutants.”

The Fossil Fuel Study Guide calms our anxiety by adding that although coal may sound like it is a dirty fuel to burn, worry not. “Many years ago, it was. But things have changed. Especially in the last 20 years, scientists have developed ways to capture the pollutants trapped in coal before they can escape into the air.”

Except that not everyone agrees and many say that “clean coal” is a myth. The Centre for Environmental Rights reminds us that three technologies supposed to “clean” coal are unproven in SA and that, “coal ash contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium, which can cause, among other things, cancer, organ failure and brain damage”.


President Donald J. Trump holds a 'Trump Digs Coal' sign during a campaign rally on August 3, 2017 in Huntington, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

In numbers

79%: The percentage of people living in Burkina Faso who express anxiety towards climate change

40%: The percentage of people living in Ethiopia who are worried about it – close to 45% of South Africans who express unease about the climate crisis

39%: Percentage of South Africa’s total CO2 emissions in 2018

13.52%: SASOL’s contribution to South Africa’s total CO2 emissions in 2018


Mighty Words

“People want us to move at speed. They even want us to switch off all the coal-fired generators. We’ll breathe the fresh air in darkness” – Gwede Mantashe, poet

“We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal. We love it. And you know that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills. They fall down real quick. You can blow up those pipelines. They go like this and you’re not going to fix them too fast. You can do a lot of things to those solar panels. But you know what you can’t hurt? Coal.” — President Trump, fabulist




MUST WATCH: On the Edge of Change, final episode

Episode Six: Back on land – South Africa & climate crisis

“We are in an ecological emergency. And we are running out of time.” Jay Naidoo, founding general secretary of COSATU, former minister in Mandela's government. Set aside 19 minutes and watch the final episode hereIn this episode, we talk to the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson; the Minister of Environment, Fisheries and Forestry, Barbara Creecy; Jay Naidoo, founding general secretary of COSATU, former minister in Mandela’s government; Professor Mark Swilling of Stellenbosch University and Our Burning Planet senior investigator Kevin Bloom about the urgency to address climate crisis, the global impacts on our environment and climate justice, and the humanitarian crisis that could unfold if we delay policies and climate strategies. 

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