A tentative end to coal

COP26, Glasgow - DAY 5

Marco Magrini

‘Coal is being consigned to history today at COP26.' This bold statement from the UK presidency comes on the day that two more multilateral agreements were signed here in Glasgow. According to COP President Alok Sharma, 77 countries have pledged to ‘end all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally’ and to phase out coal by the 2030s (major economies) or the 2040s (developing countries). In a separate initiative, another 20 countries committed to stop public financing for fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of next year, and divert the same funds into clean energy. In the months leading up to the conference, Sharma repeatedly vowed to ’consign coal to history’, a task that, if accomplished, would truly make the Scottish summit an unprecedented success. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The history of coal is not over yet. The most abundant fossil fuel on Earth is the nastiest (it emits as much as twice the carbon dioxide released from natural gas, per unit of energy) and the dirtiest of them all (it adds sulfur dioxide, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead to the air we breathe). Last year, mostly because of the pandemic, coal production decreased by 5.2 per cent and consumption fell by 4.2 per cent. This year however, largely thanks to the current energy crisis, China and India are already scrambling to burn more. There are reports of ‘zombie’ power stations in China – plants that were once closed but which have restarted operations. Although coal use has slightly declined in the last decade, it still produced around 37 per cent of the world's electricity in 2019. China and India consumed 61.8 per cent of the coal burned globally. The United States is the third highest offender (with 8.5 per cent of global consumption). The bad news is that neither China, India, the United States or Australia (which burns less coal than Germany but is a large-scale exporter) have joined the pact signed today in Glasgow. 'Don’t be too excited by these announcements,’ warned Mohamed Adow, director of Powershift Africa, during the daily press conference of CAN (a network of over 1,300 environmental NGOs). ‘They may give you a false impression.’ Still, having countries such as Poland, Vietnam, South Korea, Chile and Indonesia on board is an encouraging step forward. The other pact announced today (this time signed by the USA, too) will divert $18 billion a year toward clean energy. Finance has generally turned its back on the dirtiest of fossil fuels. In Glasgow, banks including HSBC, Fidelity International and Ethos committed to end the funding of coal by the end of 2022. In the last few days, a great number of world leaders have reiterated their will to keep the increase of Earth’s mean temperature to a maximum of 1.5°C, as recommended by scientists. Therefore, the key question is whether the flurry of pledges so far will be enough to reach that goal. The concise answer is no. But things have improved.

A UN review published ahead of the conference found that climate commitments at that point would lead to around 2.7°C of global warming. According to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, analysis shows that fully achieving all new pledges would limit global warming to 1.8°C. On the bright side, this could mean we are aiming for below 2°C for the first time. On the dark side, it is all about medium to long-term pledges that can be easily forgotten when an energy crisis strikes (as we are seeing right now). The new IEA estimate includes Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s pledge of a net-zero India by the remote 2070. It is quite a nice offer from a developing country that will be soon the world’s most populous and in dire need of energy. But will India keep this promise when Modi turns 120 years old? No one can tell. Here is the bottom line: without reigning in coal consumption, the 1.5°C target is nothing but a dream. ‘Transitioning away from coal is the most critical step to avoid catastrophic climate change,’ declared Riccardo Puliti, vice president for infrastructure at the World Bank during a panel convened by the Energy Transition Council. ‘Coal provides one third of electricity generation, but must be phased out entirely by 2040, or ten years before previous estimates.’ This is why the World Bank called ‘a halt to the approval of new coal power plants'. The really good news is that, in this scenario, investing in coal today (at least with any long-term strategy in mind) would be insane. This fact was emphasised by the Nature Energy paper just published (see our figure of the day above). The collapse of coal’s long-standing reign can’t be celebrated just yet. Still, the coal-lapse – the shortening of the time it will take to complete the demise – is to be cheered.

This article was published on Geographical Magazine's website on 4 nov 2021