The coal industry could become one of the biggest casualties of the global shift toward sustainable energy, with up to 1 million job losses expected over the next three decades.

According to a new study by San Francisco-based think tank Global Energy Monitor (GEM), the coal industry will lay off an average of 100 workers daily through 2035, leading to a cumulative 414,200 job losses.

By 2050, more than one-third of the existing labor force (or roughly a million jobs) will be phased out.

The coal industry’s slow death will occur “even without climate pledges or policies to phase out” the carbon-based commodity, GEM reported.

It added: “The coal industry itself shoulders responsibility for the sector’s unpredictable future. GEM has found that most mines expected to close in the coming decades have no planning underway to extend the life of those operations or to manage a transition into a post-coal economy.”

While most job losses will be concentrated in China and India—countries that heavily rely on coal production—the U.S. job market isn't off the hook.

The state of coal in the U.S.

Coal production in the U.S. is a tiny fraction of what it used to be.

In 1929, there were roughly 883,000 coal miners in the country. Today, that figure is around 55,000, according to market research firm IBISWorld.

Yet, the U.S. is still home to 550 coal mines—eclipsed only by China, India, and Indonesia. About three-quarters of U.S. coal is produced in just five states—Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Montana.

It’s no surprise that coal became a hot-button topic in these states during the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump promised to revive the beleaguered industry.

“We’ll start winning, winning, winning, and you are going to be very proud, and for those miners, get ready because you’re going to be working your asses off!” then-candidate Trump told a West Virginia crowd in May 2016.

Although coal country overwhelmingly backed Trump during the 2016 election, the former president’s pro-coal agenda failed to resonate.

“Markets are more powerful than politics,” Jeff McDermott, head of Nomura Greentech, told CNN Business following Trump’s election loss in 2020.

“The market is looking into the future and having greater confidence that renewables are going to be larger and high-carbon will be less valuable.”

A small piece of the pie

Despite being a shadow of its former self, coal fills a small but important role in the U.S. energy market.

In 2022, the industry accounted for one-tenth of the nation’s total energy usage and about 20% of U.S. electricity generation. The commodity has proven hard to kill because of its abundance and lower cost basis.

However, coal’s resiliency could be tested by the climate initiatives contained in President Joe Biden’s $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

“New federal tax credits in the IRA make the economic case for replacing coal with clean energy unequivocal,” research firm Energy Innovation said in a report.

The report claimed it would be more economical to shutter 210 coal plants across 48 states and replace them with new renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

The problem?

Coal is the least expensive fossil fuel source and is a major contributor to affordable electricity in the U.S. Transitioning away from it and other fossil fuels may be necessary but will also be expensive.

“The reality is that wind and solar are only cheap during the early stages of transition,” said Luas Toh, an International Fellow at Columbia University.

“Until now, renewables have been viable because of the massive base of fossil fuel generation that supplies most of our electricity needs and also stands in for intermittent wind and solar.”