Coal transitions—part 1

A systematic map and review of case study learnings from regional, national, and local coal phase-out experiences | Environmental Research Letters, Volume 16, Number 11


A rapid coal phase-out is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, but is hindered by serious challenges ranging from vested interests to the risks of social disruption. To understand how to organize a global coal phase-out, it is crucial to go beyond cost-effective climate mitigation scenarios and learn from the experience of previous coal transitions. Despite the relevance of the topic, evidence remains fragmented throughout different research fields, and not easily accessible. To address this gap, this paper provides a systematic map and comprehensive review of the literature on historical coal transitions. We use computer-assisted systematic mapping and review methods to chart and evaluate the available evidence on historical declines in coal production and consumption. We extracted a dataset of 278 case studies from 194 publications, covering coal transitions in 44 countries and ranging from the end of the 19th century until 2021. We find a relatively recent and rapidly expanding body of literature reflecting the growing importance of an early coal phase-out in scientific and political debates. Previous evidence has primarily focused on the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany, while other countries that experienced large coal declines, like those in Eastern Europe, are strongly underrepresented. An increasing number of studies, mostly published in the last 5 years, has been focusing on China. Most of the countries successfully reducing coal dependency have undergone both demand-side and supply-side transitions. This supports the use of policy approaches targeting both demand and supply to achieve a complete coal phase-out. From a political economy perspective, our dataset highlights that most transitions are driven by rising production costs for coal, falling prices for alternative energies, or local environmental concerns, especially regarding air pollution. The main challenges for coal-dependent regions are structural change transformations, in particular for industry and labor. Rising unemployment is the most largely documented outcome in the sample. Policymakers at multiple levels are instrumental in facilitating coal transitions. They rely mainly on regulatory instruments to foster the transitions and compensation schemes or investment plans to deal with their transformative processes. Even though many models suggest that coal phase-outs are among the low-hanging fruits on the way to climate neutrality and meeting the international climate goals, our case studies analysis highlights the intricate political economy at work that needs to be addressed through well-designed and just policies.


  • Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change

  • TU Berlin

  • Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

  • Center for Global Sustainability and Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland

  • School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds

  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

  • Australian National University, Crawford School of Public Policy

  • Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences, University of Potsdam

  • Center for Applied Economic Research, University of Münster

  • University of Wisconsin-Madison, La Follette School of Public Affairs

  • Europa-Universität Flensburg, Center for Sustainable Energy Systems

  • Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School

  • Sustainable Engineering Group, Curtin University

  • Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne