Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. Coal is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen.
Coal has been used as an energy resource, primarily burned for the production of electricity and/or heat, and is also used for industrial purposes, such as refining metals. A fossil fuel, coal forms when dead plant matter is converted into peat, which in turn is converted into lignite, then sub-bituminous coal, after that bituminous coal, and lastly anthracite. This involves biological and geological processes that take place over a long period.
Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases. In 2011, world gross emissions from coal usage were 14,416 million tonnes. Coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated, which is almost double the approximately 1100 pounds of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated.
Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the market in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen. Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992. In 2013, the head of the UN climate agency advised that most of the world's coal reserves should be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic global warming.