Pikachu protest against coal at cop26

‘End of coal in sight’ with COP26 pledge, but progress too slow

Image credit: REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

More than 40 countries have pledged to phase out their own use of coal at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, COP26. However, some of the world’s most polluting economies have not signed up to the agreement, which would still not end fossil fuel projects as quickly as the International Energy Agency says is necessary to limit warming to within 1.5°C.

A series of major initiatives are being announced today (4 November) at COP26 to encourage the phase out of coal for electricity generation. Coal accounts for more than 35 per cent of the world’s power. In the biggest victory so far for COP26 regarding the critical need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, dozens of countries – including many major coal-burning economies – have pledged to phase out coal for electricity generation.

“Today, I think we can say that the end of coal is in sight,” said COP26 President Alok Sharma. “Who’d have thought, [in 2019], that today we are able to say we are choking off international coal financing or that we would see a shift away from domestic coal power?”

His comments were echoed by Leo Roberts of climate think tank E3G, who said: “The past few days in Glasgow have shown that momentum away from coal is gathering pace, with new partnerships, tools, and money coming together to consign coal to history […] these announcements collectively demonstrate the era of coal is coming to an end.”

The largest economies will phase out coal in the 2030s while smaller and developing economies will do so during the 2040s. More than 18 countries signing up to the pledge have agreed for the first time to phase out (or not build or invest in) coal for the first time, including Poland, Vietnam, and Chile. Other signatories include Canada, Ukraine, Indonesia, and South Korea. It is not clear if signatories will halt projects in early stages, such as Vietnam’s pipeline of coal plants in the pre-construction stage.

Initiatives to phase out coal include support for developing economies, to ensure a fair energy transition for workers dependent on coal. Wealthy countries are expected to deliver at least $100bn annually in coming years as the foundation of a just energy transition which accounts for responsibility for historic emissions, dominated by the US and other western economies.

Greenpeace’s chief delegate, Juan Pablo Osornio, commented: “For some countries signing up to this, particularly Vietnam and Egypt, the commitment to rule out new coal projects is significant given the role of coal in their economies.” However, he warned that the agreement still falls short of the ambition needed on fossil fuels “this critical decade” and that coal must be ended by 2030 for countries such as Germany and Poland.

In a landmark agreement announced by US President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, some of the world’s wealthiest economies have pledged $8.5bn to help South Africa phase out coal ahead of schedule. South Africa is the world’s 12th largest emitter and heavily reliant on ageing coal infrastructure for electricity generation. The US, the UK, France, Germany, and the EU will contribute funds; von der Leyen described it as a “just energy transition partnership” that could provide a blueprint for work with other countries.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the agreement is a “watershed moment” for South Africa: “It is proof that we can take ambitious climate action while increasing our energy security, creating jobs and harnessing new opportunities for investment, with support from developed countries.”

Separately, 28 new members have joined the UK-led 'powering past coal alliance', which also aims to phase out coal. New members include Ukraine, which relies on coal for a third of its power, and which will now attempt to ditch coal by 2035.

Since the Paris Agreement of 2015, which aimed to limit warming to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, there has been a 76 per cent drop in the number of new coal-fired plants planned, a cancellation of 1,000GW, the UK government said. While coal use appeared to peak in 2014, it is still not falling quickly enough to keep the 1.5°C target within sight.

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency warned that investment in new coal plants and mines, and new oil and gas projects, must be stopped from 2021 to tackle climate change and meet net-zero by 2050 (necessary to meet Paris Agreement aim). Clearly, the new coal agreement will fall far short of this pledge.

Some of the world’s largest polluters were conspicuously absent from these coal-ending pledges and initiatives, prompting criticism of “glaring gaps” in the agreements. China – the world’s most polluting and coal-burning economy – was not part of the agreement, neither was the US, India, or Australia.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband commented: “Any progress towards powering past coal is welcome, but glaring gaps remain. There is no commitment from large emitters like China to stop increasing coal at home, and nothing on the phase-out of other fossil fuels.”

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, speaking on the BBC’s 'Good Morning Scotland' programme, acknowledged that some major economies had not signed up to the agreement to ditch coal and said: “They’re engaging in negotiations as well. The US, certainly under President Biden, is very much behind the net-zero agenda, and has got lots of pledges to reduce natural gas, to reduce methane.”

Another major initiative to help phase out coal was an agreement by more than 20 countries, including the US, the UK, and Denmark, to halt funding for any overseas fossil-fuel development by the end of 2022. The nearly £6bn invested annually in these projects will be diverted to clean energy projects. Concurrently, major banks including NatWest have committed to ending finance for coal developments.

Scientists have sounded warnings that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are rebounding towards pre-pandemic levels with “intensity and rapidity”, while this decade is crucial for rapidly and drastically cutting emissions. A recent report from climate think tank TransitionZero found the world will need to shut nearly 3,000 coal units before 2030 in order to keep temperature rises within 1.5°C.

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