Paging through this issue of Mining Review Africa, one cannot help but note the number of coal companies coming to the market in Southern Africa, as well as existing companies planning expansion in the region.

Companies like Resource Generation, Wescoal and state controlled African Exploration Mining and Finance Corporation in South Africa, Aviva Corporation in Botswana, Hwange in Zimbabwe, and Ncondezi in Mozambique.

All of which begs questions like: can Southern Africa sustain increasing coal production, and is there a sustainable market for more coal, both in Southern Africa and elsewhere? The answer, in a word, is YES!

Despite increasing global criticism of coal, in 2011 it was the fastest growing form of energy outside renewable energy. Its share in global primary energy consumption rose to 30.3% – the highest in more than 40 years. Total world production reached a record level of 7,678Mt last year, rising 6.6% above the previous year. And its average annual growth rate since 1999 was 4.4%. So says Anton Eberhard in his working paper entitled “The Future of South African Coal: Market, Investment and Policy Challenges.”

“While it is true that coal mining and use raise a number of environmental challenges, steps are being taken in modern coal mining operations to minimise these impacts,” he adds.

Continuous improvements in technology have dramatically reduced or eliminated many of the environmental impacts traditionally associated with the use of coal in the vital electricity generation and steelmaking industries.

Coal is the major fuel used for generating electricity worldwide, and the long list of countries which are heavily dependent on coal for electricity is headed by South Africa at well over 90%.

There are 1.3 billion people without access to electricity in today’s world. Without targeted global action, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that in 2035 there will still be one billion people without access to electricity.

The World Coal Association has published a paper entitled “Coal – Energy for Sustainable Development”, which highlights the vital role coal has in delivering energy to these 1.3 billion people, as well as its role in building sustainable communities.

“The world needs an energy access target to provide energy to those who need it most,” says the publication. “Coal will be the bedrock on which energy access is built.

International Energy Agency projections show that it will provide more than half of the ‘on-grid’ electricity needed to deliver energy for all. Furthermore, clean coal technologies, such as advanced coal-fired power generation and carbon capture and storage, can enable the world’s coal resource to be used in line with environmental and climate objectives.”

In addition to its direct role as an energy resource, coal is a critical contributor to many economies. From providing employment, export and royalty revenues on the one hand, through to local services and the development of infrastructure on the other, coal makes a substantial contribution to improving the livelihoods of millions, allowing them to grow stronger and address the challenges of poverty and development.

Coal plays a central role in supporting global economic development, alleviating poverty and is an essential resource to meet the world’s energy needs. It is also a key component of important industrial processes such as steel and cement manufacturing, both of which are central to building the essential infrastructure of growing economies.

So, says Mr. Eberhard in his paper, “it is important that we maximise the value to society from the production and use of coal, while at the same time minimising any negative impacts. The coal industry is committed to delivering value across the whole coal chain – from production, right through to utilisation.”

I’m sure you will agree that all of the above adds up to the fact that the global market for coal is increasing steadily, and that it seems likely to continue its upward trend for the foreseeable future.

It seems to me that coal is here to stay!

Read more articles from Mining Review Africa edition 10 here