Double Jeopardy:
Coal’s threat to Forests

Report by Mark Olden and Dr Jess Neumann

Executive summary

Coal is the single biggest contributor to man-made climate change.

Deforestation, meanwhile, accounts for up to a sixth of CO2 emissions.

So when forests are torn down to make way for coal mines the danger to the planet intensifies.

This report gives - for the first time - a global picture of where this threat lies, and an estimation of its scale.1

We have found that at least 11.9 million hectares of forest across the world are at risk from coal mining: an area larger than Portugal.

  • In Indonesia, 8.6 million hectares of forest is threatened: almost nine per cent of the nation’s total forest cover.
  • In Australia, coal mining threatens more than 1.3 million hectares of forest, or an area the size of more than 2.1 million football fields.2
  • In Canada, more than 1.1 million hectares of forest is threatened in the province of British Colombia alone.
  • In India and Colombia, coal mining threatens more than 250,000 hectares of forest, or the equivalent of 400,000 football fields.
  • In the United States more than 211,000 hectares of forest is threatened by mining activity across the Appalachian States.
  • In New Zealand, 53,000 hectares of forest are under threat from coal mining.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) coal mining is putting more than 37,000 hectares of forest at risk.

Yet, as alarming as these figures are, the amount of forest facing destruction so that coal can be extracted from beneath its surface, is far greater.

Open cast mine Romania

The expansion of lignite in south east Romania mines is being resisted through various legal challenges.

First, there are limits on the information available.

We’ve sourced coal mining data for four of the world’s five biggest coal producing countries (among others), and overlaid it with forest cover maps - but there are omissions. Information on China, for instance – which produces and consumes more coal than any other nation and whose economic ascendance has been powered by it – is not publicly available.4

Second, there are the indirect impacts of coal mining that our calculations don’t account for: the forests cleared to make way for the roads, towns and the other developments that follow in the wake of new or expanded mines.

Then, beyond the ‘double whammy’ that razing forests to burn coal poses to the climate, there is its devastating impact on forest dependent people and indigenous communities.

According to the World Bank “forests contribute to the livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people” and an estimated 60 million indigenous people are “highly dependent” on forest resources.5

The solution, in part, lies with them.

“Protecting communities’ rights to forests is key to keeping forests standing and coal in the ground.”

Evidence shows that the world’s legally recognised community forests hold roughly 37 million tonnes of carbon, or 29 times the annual carbon emissions of all the passenger vehicles in the world. The evidence also shows that the best guardians of forests are the people who live in them.

Protecting customary tenure rights should therefore be a key part of the strategy to keep forests standing - and where coal lies beneath them, keeping it in the ground.6


1 In June 2013 Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, brought together 40 experts from around the world for a workshop in London to examine The Impact of Mining on Forests (coal was only one of the commodities discussed). The summary of the meeting states: “While there is much anecdotal information about the direct and indirect impact of mining on forests, no comprehensive review has been undertaken to date. Given the important role forests play in sustainable development and climate regulation, this lack of information and analysis is worrying. A sound understanding of the impacts of mining on forests is needed to identify policy measures that can mitigate any negative impacts and help ensure that the mining sector makes a positive contribution towards sustainable development.”

2 This calculation is based on the standard international size of football pitches of approximately 64 x 100 metres.

3 The world’s five biggest coal producers are, in descending order: China, the US, India, Indonesia and Australia. See: Key World Energy Statistics, 2014, International Energy Agency.

4 Many Geographic Information System (GIS) maps of coal mining concession areas - including for China - are available commercially from industry analysts. Fern approached leading companies for data, but their licensing agreements would have precluded us from sharing or republishing the information even if we paid for it - undermining our open data policy and the report’s raison d’être. Consequently, our report shows GIS mapping’s power to provide compelling evidence of the nexus between coal and forests, as well as the practical challenges of finding and producing this evidence. Our experience, as well as that of Global Forest Watch (GFW) project, is that publicly available mapping data varies greatly between countries. The Chatham House workshop, The Impact of Mining on Forests, also identified other challenges, stating among its findings: “While very fine-resolution maps are increasingly available, the data require both a significant amount of time to process and ample storage space; Mapping methodologies can vary according to vegetation type, making comparison of data difficult. With the exception of large mine scars, it is difficult to map dispersed mining impacts, while the integration of data on small-scale impacts is another challenge.”

5 The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO) estimates close to 1.6 billion people rely on forest resources for their livelihoods.

6 Recent evidence supporting this includes a paper by the World Resources Institute, The Economic Costs and Benefits of Securing Community Forest Tenure.