The history of coal mining goes back thousands of years, with early mines documented in ancient China, the Roman Empire and other early historical economies. It became important in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was primarily used to power steam engines, heat buildings and generate electricity. Coal mining continues as an important economic activity today, but has begun to decline due to the strong contribution coal plays in global warming and environmental issues, which result in decreasing demand and in some geographies, peak coal.
Compared to wood fuels, coal yields a higher amount of energy per unit mass, specific energy or massic energy, and can often be obtained in areas where wood is not readily available. Though it was used historically as a domestic fuel, coal is now used mostly in industry, especially in smelting and alloy production, as well as electricity generation. Large-scale coal mining developed during the Industrial Revolution, and coal provided the main source of primary energy for industry and transportation in industrial areas from the 18th century to the 1950s. Coal remains an important energy source. Coal is also mined today on a large scale by open pit methods wherever the coal strata strike the surface or are relatively shallow. Britain developed the main techniques of underground coal mining from the late 18th century onward, with further progress being driven by 19th-century and early 20th-century progress. However, oil and gas were increasingly used as alternatives from the 1860s onward.
By the late 20th century, coal was, for the most part, replaced in domestic as well as industrial and transportation usage by oil, natural gas or electricity produced from oil, gas, nuclear power or renewable energy sources. By 2010, coal produced over a fourth of the world's energy.
Since 1890, coal mining has also been a political and social issue. Coal miners' labour and trade unions became powerful in many countries in the 20th century, and often, the miners were leaders of the Left or Socialist movements (as in Britain, Germany, Poland, Japan, Chile, Canada and the U.S.)
Since 1970, environmental issues have been increasingly important, including the health of miners, destruction of the landscape from strip mines and mountaintop removal, air pollution, and coal combustion's contribution to global warming.