A coal mine in South Kalimantan, Indonesia
Today, dubbed as “Nature Day” at COP26 in Glasgow, did not score remotely as much press buzz nearly as the previous day’s focus on climate finance, but it did result in measures for which advocates of bolder climate action have long clamored.
This morning, a coalition of nations and financial institutions have pledged to phase out coal power.
The newly issued transition statement on coal risks generating more criticism over how the ongoing COP26 talks are proceeding and what the climate talks' lasting impact will be. Countries currently reliant on coal to power their grids say they will turn away from unabated coal power generation (that is, any burning of coal at a plant that isn’t mitigated with any technology such as carbon capture) in the 2030s, and for smaller nations, that shift will occur during the 2040s. That's a timeline that will come across as too slow to those who believe climate catastrophe will occur sooner rather than later.
What this pledge does promise, however, is to end any issuance of new permits as well as a stop to the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The door is still open to such power generation plants incorporating carbon capture or a similar technology – an approach critics say is still largely unproven and could even have its own harmful effects. Nevertheless, carbon capture has its share of enthusiastic supporters. At the same time, research is out there that has concluded the technology is overall ineffective, with reasons including the reality that it often requires large amounts of energy. The discussion is far from over; carbon capture could very well become part of this transition away from coal due to the COP26 talks.
Countries signed onto this pledge include several large consumers of coal, such as South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and Ukraine. But India, while announcing it will transition to net-zero by 2070, is not on the list: In fact, the country’s government has insisted that it is keen on expanding coal mining in the name of energy security. While China, the world’s top coal miner and consumer, would not commit to any phaseout of coal, its government did join Japan and Korea in a promise to cease any overseas financing of coal project by the end of this year.
The U.K. government says this pledge has over 190 signatories, among them the financial giants HSBC, Lloyd’s Banking and the U.K.’s NatWest – in total, all of the financial companies that have aligned with this commitment hold more than $17 trillion in assets.
One sticking point that has complicated global climate change talks over the years is the gap in expectations between wealthier nations and lower-income countries (note the World Bank’s classifications of what makes a high income country, low-income country and those in between). Developing countries have long pointed out that wealthier nations like the U.S. and U.K. have long benefited from industrialization; countries siding with emerging economic giants like India and China argue that they simply want to follow a simple path toward creating wealth.
Therein lies the prickly question: Who pays for any meaningful climate action? Who funds the decommissioning of polluting coal plants and new utility-scale clean power projects?
One answer at Glasgow is the U.K.’s COP26 Energy Transition Council (ETC), which seeks to assist any country that is dependent on coal but faces financial and logistical challenges in undergoing a clean energy transition. To date, the ETC says it has the backing of 20 countries and 15 organizations that together can help deploy and pay for such as shift. This coalition has pledged assistance with such priorities as planning for utility-scale renewables, the development of micro-grids where needed and the rollout of energy efficient technologies.
So far, the prospects of COP26 having any notable success are slim. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry didn’t help expectations with his befogging assessment he made earlier this week, saying that COP26 had already “achieved success” yet “time is running short.”
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has come out with a far more realistic outlook. Even considering today’s news over coal, the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol, said that this week’s climate pledges could result in limiting global warming to 1.8°C mid-century. That’s hardly encouraging when considering the fact that the mantra for years after the Paris Accords was to limit any such change to 1.5°C.
With the UN’s own special advisor on climate action saying the most realistic path is a 2.7°C increase, it’s clear these new coal commitments need much more bite than bark.
Image credit: Dominik Vanyi via Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.