Public statement in Lusatia, Germany.
Public statement in Lusatia, Germany.

The Coal Rush and Beyond

Coal made the modern world. Coal-fired steam power drove the Industrial Revolution and transformed the societies and economies of the West. Dipesh Chakrabarty has written, “the mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuels” – and coal provided the foundations on which that mansion was built. But coal is also the single biggest contributor to climate change: 46% of global emissions. James Hansen former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says: “If we burned all of the coal in the ground, the planet is cooked. It would result in global warming of tens of degrees, sea level rise of tens of metres. We just can’t do that.” 

Public statement in Lusatia, Germany.

Research published in Nature in 2015 shows if the world wants to meet the 20C warming limit agreed on at the Paris Climate Summit, more than 80% of the world’s remaining coal reserves have to stay in the ground.

Countries like India argue they need “carbon space” to grow. India’s former Environment Minister Jairem Ramesh calls it his country’s “cruel coal conundrum”: in the short term, he argues, India will have no choice but to burn billions of tonnes of coal a year to maintain economic growth and bring electricity to the 300 million Indians currently without it.

Our project, funded by the Australian Research Council, explores the global coal conundrum, through the eyes of communities on 3 continents. In the central Indian state of Chattisgarh, in Lusatia (Lausitz) in Eastern Germany, and on Australia’s Liverpool Plains, local people are fighting to save their fields, their forests, and their way of life from the relentless march of coal. In so doing, they are reaching out and forging links with an emerging global movement for climate action, which often has its headquarters, think tanks and mass of supporters in large cities.

This unique project draws on ethnographies conducted in each country from 2014-2017, bringing together accounts of these local struggles with analysis of their place in the global commodity chain, the role of the state in promoting coal extraction and coal-fired power, and national and international climate policies.

Our research, scholarly publications, and the award-winning radio series Beyond the Coal Rush, sees these local struggles as the frontline in a global contest over the future of coal: one that will shape the future of our planet. We chart the new and often unexpected political alliances forming in opposition to coal, and explore local, national and global strategies for moving to a world beyond coal.

The project is based at University of Technology Sydney and is funded by the Australian Research Council. For more details see


Researcher: Katja Müller