Indonesia, Poland, Vietnam and other nations pledged on Thursday to phase out use of coal-fired power and stop building plants, but their deal at the COP26 climate summit failed to win support from China, India and other top coal consumers.
Britain has said one of its main aims for the United Nations summit is “consigning coal power to history”. The deal saw 23 nations making new commitments, a move the president of the COP26 summit, Alok Sharma, said put the end of coal “in sight”.
“Today I think we can say that the end of coal is in sight,” Sharma told the Glasgow meeting.
Sharma told a news conference it had been a personal priority as COP26 president to consign coal to history and “I think you can say with confidence that coal is no longer king”.
Still, some of the biggest coal-dependent nations were notable in their absence from the pledge to consign the most polluting fossil fuel to history.
China was responsible for about 54.3% of global coal consumption in 2020, while India used 11.6%, according to BP’s 2021 world energy statistical review. The United States, which also did not join the pledge, consumed 6.1%, the review showed.
Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal are the single biggest contributor to climate change, and weaning the world off coal is considered vital to achieving global climate targets.
Signatories of the COP26 agreement agreed to phase out coal-fuelled power generation in the 2030s in richer countries, and the 2040s for poorer nations. A majority also committed to shun investment in new coal plants at home and abroad.
The line-up and pledges of countries kept changing right up until the deal was announced. The absence of China, India and Australia threw a shadow over the attempt to win global backing.
A U.S. official said President Joe Biden’s plan to decarbonize the power grid by 2035 will lessen coal dependency, as will legislation on infrastructure and social spending that Congress is haggling over.
“I think we’re going to soon have a set of bills which will have $800 billion in clean energy and climate programs that are really going to drive transformation in the United States, and that is what we are focused on,” a senior U.S. Department of Energy official told reporters.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the coal-producing state of West Virginia and the founder and partial owner of a coal brokerage, has opposed some climate measures in the legislation.
A view shows a shelved 1.6-gigawatt coal-fired power project in Uppur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, October 12, 2021. Picture taken October 12, 2021.
Some experts said the deal was a step forward. It came alongside an announcement by the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an international campaign, which said it secured 28 new members, including Ukraine, to pledge to quit coal.
Antony Froggatt, deputy director for the environment and society programme at London’s Chatham House think tank, said the announcements were “notable for what is absent as much as what is new”.
“It highlights how uneven the transition to cleaner energy is across the globe,” he said.
The commitments are not binding, and some signatories have said they will not be able to phase out coal without financial help from other countries.
“We need to have funding to retire coal earlier and to build the new capacity of renewable energy,” Indonesian finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati told Reuters on Wednesday.
The COP26 summit has so far delivered roughly $20 billion in funding to help countries phase out coal, said Britain, which hopes the summit in Glasgow will produce enough commitments to keep within reach the target of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That would require the world to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Britain has largely eliminated coal from power generation, but has yet to decide on proposals for a new coal mine in Cumbria, northwest England, intended to extract coking used for steel production.
The COP26 deal covers coal-fuelled power generation, but not its use in industrial manufacturing.
The COP26 summit has so far yielded deals on coal, deforestation and methane, but a clear picture has yet to emerge on what these voluntary initiatives would add up to in terms of moderating temperature rises.
A Polish government spokesman said the country’s commitment would see it end coal use in the 2040s. Poland had previously agreed to stop mining coal by 2049.
Campaigners called for an earlier end-date and firm policies to make sure Poland delivered. “Poland must set a clear and concrete plan to phase out coal by 2030 at the latest,” Joanna Flisowska of Greenpeace Poland said.
Britain said it hoped the coal deal, with its initial signatories, would spur others such as China and India to join.