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Toward a global coal mining moratorium? A comparative analysis of coal mining policies in the USA, China, India and Australia

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To stop global warming at well below 2° C, the bulk of the world’s fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground. Coal is the fossil fuel with the greatest proportion that cannot be used, and various advocacy groups are campaigning for a ban on the opening of new coal mines. Recently, both China and the USA implemented temporary moratoria on the approval of new coal mining leases. This article examines whether these coal mining bans reflect the emergence of a global norm to keep coal under the ground. To that end, we review recent coal mining policies in the four largest coal producers and explain them comparatively with a framework based on interests, ideas and institutions. We find that the norm of keeping coal in the ground remains essentially contested. Even in those countries that have introduced some form of a coal mining moratorium, the ban can easily be, or has already been, reversed. To the extent that the norm of keeping coal in the ground has momentum, it is primarily due to non-climate reasons: the Chinese moratorium was mostly an instance of industrial policy (aiming to protect Chinese coal companies and their workers from the overcapacity and low prices that are hitting the industry), while the USA’s lease restrictions were mainly motivated by concerns over fiscal justice. We do not find evidence of norm internalisation, which means that the emerging norm fails to gain much traction amid relevant national actors and other (large) coal producing states. If proponents of a moratorium succeed in framing the issue in non-climate terms, they should have a greater chance of building domestic political coalitions in favour of the norm.

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  1. It is worth noting that this figure only gives an estimated 50% chance of staying with the 2 °C limit. Moreover, the figure assumes a widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies as from 2025 onwards. If CCS is not widely deployed, the amount of unburnable coal rises to 88% (McGlade and Ekins 2015).

  2. The full text of President Tong’s call is available from: .

  3. Moreover, they also account for over 72% of global coal consumption, so any sign of a change in mining policies is set to create waves in the global coal market. Yet, our interest here lies with the extraction policies of the named countries, not with their coal usage policies, although we consider potential linkages between the two.

  4. Interview with Richard Denniss, Chief Economist, The Australia Institute, 29 August 2017. This would mean that the Galilee Basin, where the proposed Carmichael mine is located, would not be eligible for funding by Westpac. Three other large Australian banks had already distanced themselves from financing the Adani project prior to Westpac’s decision (Robertson 2017).

  5. E.g., Adani (Indian company) and its attempts to open the Carmichael mine in Queensland, Australia.

  6. Prior to 1992, the Ministry of Power, Coal and Non-Conventional Energy Sources consisted of three departments. In 1992, that ministry was split into the Ministry of Power, Ministry of Coal, and Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (rechristened the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in 2006), overseen by the same Minister and with interdependent competencies.

  7. “No more coal mining licences due to harmful health effects, says Union Minister,” Myanmar Times, Feb. 13, 2017.

  8. Many thanks to Richard Denniss for highlighting this.


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Correspondence to Mathieu Blondeel.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on ‘Fossil Fuel Supply and Climate Policy’ edited by Harro van Asselt and Michael Lazarus.

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Blondeel, M., Van de Graaf, T. Toward a global coal mining moratorium? A comparative analysis of coal mining policies in the USA, China, India and Australia. Climatic Change 150, 89–101 (2018).

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