Making alternatives more viable

"Even coal companies are investing in other technologies" when giving aid, he said, citing BHP Billiton's gift of solar panels in Pakistan as one example.

The report cited research by the International Energy Agency on Africa that found the cost of connecting communities more than three kilometres from the grid was about $US450 ($523) per megawatt-hour, often making alternatives more viable. Solar panels and small wind generators were less than $US300 per mWh.

In addition, big miners, such as Peabody Energy, also played up the importance of coal in sparking economic growth, describing the fuel as "a significant catalyst for economic growth", the institute's report said.

The link, though, is less causal than a correlation, Mr Campbell said: "It's not coal use that's making people busier and more productive - it's the busier, more productive people who are sometimes using more coal."

The debate over the role of coal has intensified in part because of coal's higher carbon-dioxide emissions compared with gas and oil. The IEA, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other global bodies say nations have a limited carbon budget to burn up if they are to avoid dangerous global warming.

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