“Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal to history.” Those were the words in July of Alok Sharma, president of the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26). With world leaders gathered in Glasgow this week, the need to phase out coal has never been more urgent if humanity is to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Coal is the highest emitting fossil fuel, responsible for 30 percent of global emissions, and a major contributor to the air pollution that takes such a devastating toll on health, prematurely taking the lives of 8 million people every year.
While the drive to keep coal in the ground has been gathering momentum for decades, its end remains as elusive as ever. In many places around the world, coal is still king.
International and regional human rights bodies have long made clear to governments that they bear responsibility for the harmful impact on human rights of emissions originating in their territory whether inside or outside their borders. Countries that fail to take steps to phase out coal fail to meet their human rights obligations.
There have been some encouraging developments regarding coal since the last COP in 2019. The G7 nations agreed in May to end most international financing for new coal. The G20 nations made a similar agreement in the days leading up to COP26. China announced in September that it would not build new coal plants overseas. Japan and South Korea, two of the top five public funders of coal, also announced earlier this year their intention to phase out overseas coal support.
At the same time, private banks, pension funds, and other private financial actors have taken steps to restrict coal finance. They have established narrower terms or divested completely, in part because of the reputational risk but also because of coal’s uncertain long-term future. Some insurance companies are also moving away from coal due to excessive risks. These factors, combined with carbon taxes imposed in many jurisdictions, are making coal increasingly less economical than renewable energies, whose costs have been rapidly falling. Solar is now the cheapest electricity.
Sounds like progress, right? Yes, but not nearly enough. Coal remains the world’s main source of electricity. And China, Japan, and India – which use over 65 percent of the total – show few signs of moving in a different direction. China, by far the world’s largest producer, importer, and user of thermal coal, approved more new coal-fired power plants in the first half of 2020 than it did during the previous two years combined. And ongoing blackouts in Chinese coal-power-producing regions due in part to coal shortages at a time of record coal prices means Chinese demand risks fueling continued coal production in South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere.
The announced policy shifts on coal financing, while positive, are plagued with loopholes, carveouts, and ambiguities. Japan, for example, despite its pledge to eliminate support for coal projects abroad, continues to fund massive new coal plants in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia that were in the pipeline at the time of the announcement but weren’t yet built. And the Chinese government has yet to clarify whether its announced phase-out of funding for overseas coal plants applies to the dozens of projects already in the pipeline.
Within the G20, Covid-19 recovery funds, rather than being spent on clean sources of energy, have largely been plowed back into fossil fuels, including coal. The G20 could have used the opportunity to speed up the transition to clean energy and help protect a huge range of human rights, including the rights to health, life, water, food security, and a healthy environment. Instead, G20 governments will exacerbate the problems.
The coal industry and its supporters like to defend this ongoing support by pointing to the economic costs of coal’s demise, particularly for the workers in coal mines and power plants. What they ignore, however, is not only the jobs created by a transition to clean energy but also the staggering economic costs from climate inaction. One insurance company estimated losses from climate change could reach $23 trillion annually by 2050, with devastating impacts on human rights. This is more than ten times the revenues of the world’s oil and gas companies in 2020, and more than the current GDP of the United States or China.
Among the many announcements that governments will make during COP26 to underscore their climate credentials, there needs to be tangible and immediate steps to end coal power once and for all for both domestic and overseas and for both new and existing power plants whether they are unabated or not. No exceptions, loopholes, or delays. As the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in March “Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5 degree goal.”
Existing plants should be retired as quickly as is feasible, ideally by 2030 at the latest. And governments should immediately halt financial support to any infrastructure for thermal coal not yet fully built and remove all subsidies and other support to industry entities whose revenues come from coal.
In particular, Japan should stop funding coal plants in Vietnam and Bangladesh. China should clarify that its phase-out of overseas coal support extends to existing projects, and immediately cut funding for coal plants in the pipeline in Cambodia, Bosnia, and elsewhere. And the development or expansion of thermal coal mines – including in Australia, which recently approved three major coal projects in just one month – should be ended altogether.
Every day we spend burning coal to produce electricity is another day we sabotage efforts to achieve the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, and thereby averting the most catastrophic climate outcomes and the impacts that follow. Alok Sharma is right: this needs to be the COP where states take drastic action – no loopholes, no carveouts, no political posturing – to consign coal to history.