imgCoalIcon Coal

Discourage or encourage mining coal and burning it in power plants. Coal is the most harmful fossil fuel in terms of carbon emissions, as well as in air pollutants that cause severe health impacts. It is a dominant source of energy globally, however, because it is relatively inexpensive to mine and transport.


  • Government policies that phase out power plants or make them more expensive in any way, such as taxes on coal.
  • Financial services industry (e.g. banks) or global development institutions (e.g. World Bank) limiting access to capital for new coal mining, refining, and power plant infrastructure.

Big Messages

  • Discouraging coal is a high leverage strategy for reducing future temperature change. It keeps coal in the ground, increases the cost of energy, and reduces energy demand.
  • Discouraging coal also improves public health and saves medical costs through improved air quality.

Key Dynamics

  • When coal is discouraged, by taxing it, watch the brown area of Coal go down in the “Sources of Primary Energy” graph. It is one of the most sensitive energy supplies to any increase in cost. Unlike oil, it can often be substituted for natural gas and renewables.
  • Taxing coal also reduces energy demand (see graphs “Final Energy Consumption” and “Cost of Energy”). When energy prices are higher, people tend to use energy more efficiently and conserve energy. However, tax policies must be implemented with considerations for poor and working-class communities who can be harmfully impacted by high energy prices.

Potential Co-Benefits of Discouraging Coal

  • Reduced air pollutants from coal burning improves air quality and health outcomes for surrounding communities.
  • Less coal mining reduces heavy metal drainage and waste from mine sites which improves water quality and helps protect wildlife habitats, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.

Equity Considerations

  • Taxing coal can raise energy costs for households and businesses that rely on coal for energy needs.
  • Low-income communities often suffer the worst health outcomes yet make up the majority of individuals who produce coal. Providing pathways for these people to find new jobs will be essential.

Slider Settings

The following table highlights the numerical ranges for the labelled input levels of the Coal slider. Each of the energy supply sliders is set to reflect a similar percentage cost increase or decrease for each input level.

very highly taxed highly taxed taxed status quo subsidized
Change in price per ton of coal equivalent (tce) +$110 to +$40 +$40 to +$20 +$20 to +$6 +$6 to -$6 -$6 to -$20
Cost increase or decrease +200% to +60% +60% to +30% +30% to +10% +10% to -10% -10% to -30%

Model Structure

The cost of coal affects three significant decisions regarding energy infrastructure:

  1. Investment in new capacity (whether or not to build new processing and power plants);
  2. use of capacity (whether to run existing plants);
  3. retirement of capacity (whether to keep plants longer or shorter than the average of ~30 years).

Case Studies

United States: Replacing all coal-powered electricity in the US with solar power could save 52,000 lives per year, which is more than the number of people employed by the coal industry today. [1]

United States: The total cost of reliance on coal to the US economy is estimated to be $344 billon per year. Of that cost, $187B is from air pollution, $74.6B is from public health affects in Appalachia, and $61.7B from climate damages. [2]

India: A one gigawatt increase in coal-fired capacity corresponds to a nearly 15% increase in infant mortality in areas close to coal power plants. The effect was largest for older plants, plants in areas with relatively higher pollution levels, and plants burning domestic rather than imported coal. [3]


How can I directly force deeper reductions in coal use? Consider selecting the “Stop building new coal infrastructure” switch in the advanced view, and changing the “% Reduction in coal utilization” slider.

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[1]Prehoda, E. W., & Pearce, J. M. (2017). Potential lives saved by replacing coal with solar photovoltaic electricity production in the U.S. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 80, 710–715.
[2]Epstein, P. R., Buonocore, J. J., Eckerle, K., Hendryx, M., Iii, B. M. S., Heinberg, R., … Glustrom, L. (2011). Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219(1), 73–98.
[3]Barrows, G., Garg, T., & Jha, A. (2019). The Health Costs of Coal-Fired Power Plants in India. SSRN.