Prometheus, glamour and the market

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Converted to heat, used for transport or to fuel industrial blast-furnaces – coal offered humankind the power of a thousand suns, buried over the centuries. In exchange, its human and environmental cost has left an enduring mark on our planet. It may no longer get good press, but coal is – discreetly – making a big comeback.

Coal doesn’t actually exist in a single form. From wood briquettes used for Sunday barbecues and (mineral) coke used in blast-furnaces, to peat, popular language uses terms that are so diverse that it’s hard to see what they have in common. This is the paradox of the matter. Coal is both the world’s oldest fossil fuel and at the same time a social and economic construct for which there is neither a strict scientific definition1, nor commercial standardisation in relation to its form and quality.

Created from the decomposition of tropical plants that populate the world’s hot and humid regions, during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain (1760 – 1913) coal attracted the nickname “buried sunshine”, or “sun concentrate”. It was laid down in seams over tens of millions of years and contained enough energy to transform our planet permanently. The first wave of globalisation, European colonisation and the Anthropocene Era arose from the effort to harness this radiant energy. It was the period in which humans became a key actor, able to exert a lasting impact on their environment.

For the purpose of this study, we will refer to the concept of coal as a family of sedimentary, combustible rock that is formed from compressed plant debris. From lignite to anthracite, there are infinite varieties of coal, depending on carbon content (its calorific value) and level of volatile matter (CO2, methane and other hydrocarbons) liberated at the moment of combustion. The basic principle is as follows: the older and more deeply buried the coal is, the higher its calorific value.2 Anthracite’s carbon content (90%) is for example far higher than that of lignite, the low-end manifestation of this rock on the market. There are two main categories of mineral coal that are distinct from one another in their use:

  1. Thermal coal used in coal plants to generate electricity. This represents some 70 percent of its use.
  2. Metallurgical coal used to heat blast-furnaces, primarily steelworks (some 15 percent). The remaining part is distributed between the cement, paper and ceramics industries.
Coal was formed over millions of years from dead vegetation. After being covered by layers of earth, it was subjected to high pressure and heat. This was how peat, lignite, bituminous coal and anthracite were formed. Anthracite is the most combustible form, owing to its high level of carbon.

A manifest destiny

Coal comes from the Earth’s crust and has a far higher calorific value than charcoal, so it burns better and for longer. Coal brings tropical sun to the North, melts iron ore, and transforms heat into movement via steam. It offered Great Britain the ability to master both steel production and the oceans, giving it at least a half-century head start in the Industrial Revolution. This was more than enough to strengthen the belief that the nation had a manifest destiny to be a global power.3 The territories endowed with large coal reserves saw in this a marvellous gift from Providence. It offered a group of hand-picked companies the power of a million years of sunshine, stored in anticipation of their future needs. From that point, this concentrated energy became closely associated with the concept of civilisation – but the power it provided came at a price.

In 1860, England alone produced more coal than the rest of humankind. With its three million inhabitants, London was the largest city on earth, at the heart of the empire and a crossroads of cultures. The soot regularly plunged the capital’s streets into darkness for whole days4 – “a darkness you can touch”, to cite an expression then used by the Times newspaper – and caused many health problems, particularly among children.

In 1886 in the United States, which had since become the new coal power, it’s estimated that 31 percent of deaths in the mining region of Cincinnati were linked to pulmonary diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and bronchitis.5 Coal releases more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when consumed – twice as much as natural gas, and a third more than petrol.6 This is the cost of the soot.

© Pictorial Press/Alamy
Around 1900, the United States, a big coal producer, also resorted to child-labour for the mining of this raw material: shown here are young workers in the Woodward Coal Mines, in Kingston, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades, in the collective imagination, coal has become associated with Dickensian images of children in rags and covered in soot, begging for a scrap of bread or loitering on platforms in search of a piece of coal falling off a wagon. It takes you back to the torments of the 19th century and to the social cost of the industrial revolution.

Not a "sexy" product

Two centuries later, Ivan Glasenberg claimed that “everybody is horny as hell for coal”.7 The former CEO of Glencore deserves credit for having always believed in the revival of Coal as King. This is what pushed the Zug-based giant to enter a race to acquire coal mines in the 1990s. He was proved right – in 2022 the price of coal has tripled compared to the previous year. With its 26 coal mines and its market strength, this summer Glencore signed a record annual contract with a coal plant in Japan. The price was USD 375 per tonne. The negotiations between the Zug-based multinational – whose production increased by 14 percent in the first half of 2022 – and its Japanese clients were followed closely by the whole sector, as it considered the tariffs it obtained as a reference for the year to come.

It was certainly something to brag about in Zug, and Ivan Glasenberg did not shy away from doing so. He took every opportunity to extoll the virtues of the sedimentary rock to the media and his firm’s shareholders. In February 2019, under pressure from a coalition of investors driven by environmental considerations, Glencore was forced to announce a freezing of its coal production (of 150 million tonnes a year). Since then, coal has no longer featured in Glencore’s active communications. It prefers to crow – in Swiss bus and railway stations and trains – about its cobalt and copper assets; minerals that both play a core role in the energy transition.

Advertising "reducing emissions" as the world's largest exporter of coal - one can do that... In the train stations and trains of Switzerland, the commodities giant Glencore is no longer afraid of contradictions.

Even at the FT Global Commodities Summit in Lausanne, coal traders seem to occupy a marginal spot on the sidelines. “Coal isn’t sexy – it gets your hands dirty. It’s a product that requires little added value”, says Lars Schernikau. Established in Switzerland over the last 20 years, this East German is unique in that he wrote one of the few academic works on the coal market.8 He himself has been involved in marketing it since he became a shareholder of his family business. “Thirty years ago, even I was asking myself who would still need coal”, he admits. “No one was paying attention to this form of energy any longer.” It has now very much regained our attention.

  1. Charles-François Mathis, La civilisation du charbon, Ed. Vendémiaire, 2021, pages 26–27.
  2. Action de Carême, La Suisse pays du charbon, July 2019, page 5.
  3. Barbara Freese, Coal, A Human History, Ed. Arrow Books, 2003, pages 6–7, 64–65, 100–101.
  4. Barbara Freese, Coal, A Human History, Ed. Arrow Books, 2003, page 96.
  5. Barbara Freese, Coal, A Human History, Ed. Arrow Books, 2003, page 152–3.
  6. Barbara Freese, Coal, A Human History, Ed. Arrow Books, 2003, page 184.
  7. Coal Week International, The World is Hungry for Coal, Glencore says, August 2011, cited in Javier Blas & Jack Farchy, The World for Sale, Ed. Random House UK, 2021, page 188.
  8. Lars Schernikau, Economics of the International Coal Trade – Why Coal Continues to Power the World, Ed. Springer, 2016 (2nd Edition).

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