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August 18, 2022

Explainer: Is Australia’s coal more greenhouse gas friendly than other coal?

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Everything you wanted to know about coal but were too afraid to ask

In an interview with the ABC 7:30 program, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese claimed if Australia stopped producing and exporting coal, “what you would see is a replacement with coal from other countries that’s likely to produce higher emissions because of the quality of our product”.

It’s a line that’s been spruiked before by Australian leaders like former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 and Scott Morrison in 2021.

Brown coal is primarily what Australia produces. Photo energyandresources.vic.gov.au

What is coal anyway?

Coal is a type of sedimentary rock formed when plants and organic matter are put under heat and pressure over millions of years. Hence why we call it a “fossil fuel.”

Australia’s black coal resources date from up to 299 million years ago, while some brown coals are a recent as 23 million years ago.

Coal calling the kettle black

Forget fifty shades of grey, engineers and geologists have come up with almost as many names and ways of classifying this browny, black rock.

Let’s sort first by colour and carbon.

Geoscience Australia says coal ranges in colour from yellow through to pitch black. The level of shade and gloss corresponds carbon content ranging from 60 – 86%.

Peat – at under 60% carbon content, is an “almost-coal,” an organic sediment that looks like a clod of earth.

Brown coal (aka lignite) is 60 – 70% carbon and ranges from yellow to brown with a woody appearance.

Coal comes in three types of black.

The first, ‘sub-bituminous’ (aka black lignite) is dark brown to black (carbon content: 70 – 76%). The second ‘bituminous’ (aka soft coal, aka steam coal, aka rock coal) is around 76 – 86% carbon.

The third, blackest, and highest in carbon (more than 86%) is anthracite.

But wait, just when you’ve got your head around those categories there’s a whole other way of sorting things.

Coal calling

Another way of naming coal relates to how it’s used.

Any coal used in power stations is referred to as “thermal coal” and can be black or brown. . Despite progress on renewable energy, coal still fuels the majority of Australia’s electricity (59%).

Coal used in steel making is usually referred to as “coking coal.” It’s usually made from certain types of bituminous black coal which is then  processed into a new type called ‘coke’ which has a higher share of carbon.

And just by-the-by “jet” is the fancy name for brown coal when its used as ornamental stone, while graphite is the type used in pencils.

Burning coal produces a range of climate warming greenhouse gases.

Here’s a riddle: what can be washed, but is never really clean?

Pollution from burning coal can include carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, heavy metals (like mercury), particulates (like ash), nitrogen oxides (which are both greenhouse gases and components of photochemical smog) and sulphur dioxide (which can lead to acid rain).

So, does the quality or source of coal make a difference?

In terms of climate change, according to the International Energy Agency, coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Brown and black coal power stations produce different amounts of greenhouse gas pollution per unit of electricity. For example the Finkel Review found, a brown coal power station produces between 0.96 – 1.14 tonnes carbon dioxide and a black coal power station between 0.7 – 0.9 tonnes for each megawatt hour of electricity generated. Multiply this by a power station’s size and electricity output, and this results in a large amount of pollution. Loy Yang A power station for example emits around 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

While burning lower quality coal (with higher ash or moisture content) could in theory reduce power station efficiency, resulting in more greenhouse gas pollution due to wasted energy, power station technology and age has a significant effect on emissions.

While some studies suggest Australian thermal coals may contain lower levels of certain elements, there is limited evidence to assess Albanese’s claim. Air pollution from coal power is also affected by many different factors including coal quality and composition, how it is mined, processed and transported, along with power station regulations and technologies (like filters).

Fossil-fuel dinosaurs excited about a lump of coal.

Does Australia’s coal count?

Australia’s coal is a significant source of domestic and global emissions.

The IEA says Australia is the second largest exporter of coal globally, after Indonesia.

When Australia exports coal and other fossil fuels like oil and gas overseas, those fuels are ultimately burned and the resulting emissions are more than double Australia’s annual emissions.

In this context, discussing the relative merits of one type of polluting coal over another, is kind of missing the point. Particularly given the alternatives to coal – like renewable energy – produce power without these kinds of pollution.

That’s why the International Energy Agency says reaching ‘net zero’ emissions means: no new coal mines and no extensions from 2020, a global phase out of coal power by 2040 (and by 2030 in advanced economies like Australia), a 90 per cent decline in the total use of coal by 2050.


This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Petra Stock. Petra Stock has a degree in environmental engineering and a Masters in Journalism from University of Melbourne. She has previously worked as a climate and energy analyst.

Published by The Echo in conjunction with Cosmos Magazine.


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13 COMMENTS

  1. Carbon Dioxide is not pollution. Without it all life on Earth would die. The extra CO2 is causing the deserts to green (CSIRO). I own some desert and that absolutely happening. That carbon is being worked by plants into the clay and sand slowly turning it to dirt. Higher CO2 levels cause all plants to become more drought resistant and require less water to grow. More food, more forest, a more habitable planet.
    If we stop putting extra CO2 back into the atmosphere, the deserts and crustaceans will rapidly sequester it all, and the planet will drop back into the 3 million year desertification phase it has been suffering from.

    • OMG, you just dont get it do you! This affect you describe as a “greener world” has always been accounted for by Climatoligists, but this is only avery small window into the whole global warming effect of CO2. If we contiune in our ways, spewing CO2 uncontrollably into the atmosphere the planet will heat up to the point where plants can’t survive, Insects will die off (like they currenlty are) and ecosystems will fail.
      That CO2 is good for the atmosphere has been debunked many times and is the staple of CLIMATE DENIERS first line of defence.

      • Do you know how hot it would have to get for plants to stop growing? Even the worst IPCC predictions aren’t remotely that hot.
        The Venus model is always the first line of defence for climate disaster pedalers.

      • C02 is not a pollutant .. seriously Nads
        Who is in denial ? Unless you are residing
        In a Cave ..you are a hypocrite.. Standard ..

        • Why should we live in caves Barrow, because opportunists and troglodytes have refused to heed the warnings that scientists have been giving us since the 50s. If the average punter was less enamoured of their anti intellectual obstinacy we would be well advanced now on the path to renewable non-polluting sources of the energy our otherwise advanced societies need.

          Do you know what sickens me even more than the steadfastly ignorant? Those who say that they have been sceptics for decades but now have come to see the undeniable evidence. Better late than never? – Not.

    • Ha, ha, ha, Comedian Christian at our service again – “Carbon Dioxide is not pollution”, of course not if you don’t mess around with its atmospheric concentration.
      Increasing the atmospheric concentration of your wonder gas is leading to increased ocean acidification which will do wonders, NOT, for shell and coral organisms.

      Thank you Gonads for your post as well. This more CO2, is all good, is all crap.

      • Those shell and coral organisms were around when the CO2 concentrations were much higher than today.
        In fact their shell dwelling ancestors were around when the CO2 level was 100x what it is today and the Earth had ice caps from it’s Poles to the Equator.
        These creatures are responsible for sucking that CO2 out of the air to make their shells, which over time turned into all the limestone we make our concrete from, and you think they have a problem with high levels of CO2? They can handle high levels than a human can!

      • Captain planet Joachim at it again !
        Pontificating/ gaslighting comments.
        With respect what a Hypocrite .
        ‘do as I say not as I do ‘
        All you alarmist are the same
        your Guru Mr Brandt !
        Prime example ..flys up north before
        The election business class 👏
        In the chairman’s lounge with all
        The so called denialists.. all the trimmings
        Ushered into the pointy end of the plane
        In Hydrocarbon Heaven was Mr Brandt
        When Questioned as to why he didn’t
        Drive up north in his electric vehicle ?
        Oh i don’t own one .. Priceless Joachim !
        🤣🤣🤣

  2. Although it is true that carbon dioxide is essential for life on earth, it doesn’t necessarily follow that more is better; ‘the dose makes the poison’. The science is crystal clear; high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to changes in climate and extremes of weather that we have already experienced here in the Northern Rivers.

    • Most plants on Earth use C3 photosynthesis that need high CO2. These plants grow far better in a greenhouse full of CO2. The newer species of plants use C4 photosynthesis that requires less CO2. C4 plants such as corn are only 5% of plants and are an evolutionary adaption the low carbon levels of the current era.
      You are saying that human comfort is more important than a healthy environment.

  3. Well – if we continue in any of the ever-ongoing ways
    the world may just do a roll over. Spicks & specks???
    You’d better believe it.

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