Area of forest larger than Portugal globally threatened by coal mining

  • At least 11.9 million hectares of forest (about 29.4 million acres) are threatened by coal development worldwide, a report by Brussels-based NGO Fern says.

  • Some 8.6 million hectares (21.25 million acres) of forest is threatened in Indonesia alone.

  • The report’s authors recommend strengthening the rights of local forest-based communities as an effective means of beginning to tackle the problem.

According to a report released at the UN climate talks in Paris last week, an area of the world’s forests larger than Portugal is currently at risk of being destroyed for coal mines.

Forests in Australia, Canada, Colombia, India, Indonesia and the United States are particularly at risk, the report by Brussels-based NGO Fern says. By overlaying coal mining concessions with forest cover data, the group found that at least 11.9 million hectares of forest (about 29.4 million acres) are threatened by coal development worldwide.

Because burning coal for energy and clearing forests for coal mines both produce carbon emissions and make global warming worse, the report’s authors write, the threat posed by deforestation for coal mines is especially severe.

“Coal is the single biggest contributor to man-made climate change,” they write. “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.”

As part of the report, Fern produced a series of maps to show the extent of the threat to delegates at COP21 in Paris. In addition to emissions from deforestation and fossil fuel extraction on forested land, forests play a huge role in regulating the global climate by acting as a vital storage system for vast amounts of carbon, making a plan to keep what’s left of the world’s forests standing an urgent task for climate negotiators.

“These maps give the first global picture of where forests are being destroyed for coal mining, a ‘double whammy’ for the climate,” Fern’s Saskia Ozinga said in a statement. “Negotiators gathering in Paris need to recognize that clamping down on coal mining would not only reduce carbon emissions, it would help to save forests and all of their benefits.”

Some of the report’s findings don’t need an accompanying visual to convey their urgency. Some 8.6 million hectares (21.25 million acres) of forest is threatened in Indonesia alone, for instance — almost nine percent of the nation’s total forest cover.

Indonesia coal mines and forest
Indonesia coal mines and forest. Map via Fern.

Indonesia is by far the country with the most forest cover at risk, but other big coal producers have substantial forest areas at stake if they don’t take action, the report’s authors warn.

In Australia, coal activities put more than 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of forest in harm’s way, which is about the size of 2.1 million soccer fields. In India and Colombia, the equivalent of 400,000 soccer fields are under threat.

Australia coal mines and forest
Australia coal mines and forest. Map via Fern.
Leard State Forest contains some of Australia's last unbroken tracts of critically endangered box-gum woodland, and is host to multiple coal mines.
Leard State Forest contains some of Australia’s last unbroken tracts of critically endangered box-gum woodland, and is host to multiple coal mines. Global Forest Watch shows the region comprising the state forest lost more than 14 percent of its tree cover from 2001 through 2014.
India coal mines and forest
India coal mines and forest. Map via Fern.

Meanwhile, several North American forests could soon be cleared for coal, including more than 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) in the Canadian province of British Columbia alone and more than 211,000 hectares of forest in the USA’s Appalachian states.

USA coal mines and forest
USA coal mines and forest. Map via Fern.

The report’s authors recommend strengthening the rights of local forest-based communities as an effective means of beginning to tackle the problem, citing the Forest Rights Act adopted by India in 2006 as a good example of how to safeguard against wiping out forests for coal.

Indigenous leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America attended the Paris climate talks last week with a similar message.

The Indigenous leaders offered their help — or what they call “the most affordable pathway for climate negotiators struggling to come up with solutions” — and presented an analysis showing that as much as 20.1 percent of the carbon stored aboveground in Earth’s tropical forests is on Indigenous land.

“Repeated evidence shows that the best guardians of forests are the people who live in them,” Fern’s Ozinga said. “Protecting communities’ rights to forests with strong land rights is essential to keeping forests standing, and where coal’s beneath it, keeping it in the ground.”

Dr. Jess Neumann of GIS Mapping Services produced the maps for the Fern report but said that the scale of current deforestation for coal is much greater than they suggest because of how little information is publicly available about coal mining. China, for instance, which produces and consumes more coal than any other country, does not release any information about its coal use to the public.

“There are many cases where coal-mining data are unavailable, or only provided in a form unsuitable for this kind of analysis, Neumann said. “There’s a clear need for much greater transparency.”

RO_MiSt_2014_Coal-10 Copyright Mihai Stoica Please credit accordingly
The expansion of lignite in south east Romania mines is being resisted through various legal challenges. © Mihai Stoica.
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