A project exploring the global coal conundrum, through the eyes of communities on three continents.

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.”

Jaenschwalde Power Plant
Jänschwalde Power Plant.

“Cruel coal conundrum”

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.

Man rides motorbike on a dirt road through village
Indian state of Chattisgarh.

Ulli Schulz in Farmyard with cow
Lusatia (Lausitz) in Eastern Germany.

Andrew Pursehouse No Mines Billboard
Australia’s Liverpool Plains.

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.


Linda Connor


Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney

Devleena Ghosh


Associate Professor, UTS Social Inquiry Program, University of Technology Sydney

James Goodman


Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

Tom Morton


Associate Professor, Journalism Program, University of Technology Sydney

Stuart Rosewarne


Associate Professor, Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney

Partner investigators

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ortwin Renn

Research associates and assistants

Jon Marshall, Kanchi Kohli, Manju Menon, Rebecca Pearse, Katja Mueller, Sharon Davidson

Funding organisation

Australian Research Council (ARC Discovery Projects), 2014-2016