The ‘phase-down’ of coal: A radical agreement or underwhelming let-down?

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published November 18th, 2021

The climate agreement reached at COP26 is the first to explicitly address our global addiction to coal, but to many, the watered-down text represents a serious failure. While the last-minute reversal is unfortunate and is a hammer-blow to any hopes of remaining below 1.5°C, it is important to consider why India and China remain reluctant to a rapid phase-out.

The final agreement signed at COP26 —the Glasgow Climate Pact—is the first global climate agreement to explicitly plan for a reduction in the dominance of coal power. While coal use is declining significantly in some countries, on a global scale, it remains the largest source of electricity and the second-largest source of primary energy (behind oil). Hence, there has been reluctance from many to rapidly move away from coal.

A coal power plant in Datteln, Germany. | E / Flickr

Our continued reliance on coal concerns environmentalists, as it is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, already contributing over 0.3°C of the 1°C increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

This is because the amount of CO2 emitted by a given fuel is related to its carbon content; as coal is typically 60% to 80% carbon, it is particularly dirty compared to other fossil fuels such as natural gas. Incredibly, one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions released since 1988 are associated with just 35 of the world’s largest private or state owned coal producers.

Given these harrowing statistics, it may be surprising to many that the Glasgow Climate Pact is the first global agreement to address coal use. Further surprising still, is that the deal does not specify a complete ‘phase out’ of coal power, rather it calls for a ‘phase down’ of coal power.

‘The final agreement published on Sunday pledged to phase-down’ coal use. Legitimising the continued use of coal for decades to come.’

While earlier draft agreements included a commitment to ‘phase-out’ coal, following opposition (principally led by India and China) the final agreement published on Sunday pledged to ‘phase-down’ coal use instead. Legitimising the continued use of coal for decades to come.

Meaning despite rhetoric stating this agreement sounds the death knell for coal power, the watered-down agreement will also be viewed as a serious missed opportunity.

Arguing this new deal is ultimately a failure is not a challenging task, as the pledges made at COP26 will not prevent warming surpassing 1.5°C. Even under the most optimistic scenario, which assumes full implementation of all announced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and net-zero targets, warming is predicted to reach 1.8°C (with an expected range being between 1.5°C and 2.4°C).

In his final conference speech, COP26 president Alok Sharma apologised to delegates at how events unfolded, as the last-minute reversal overshadowed the aspired conclusion of the conference. Although the difference in language may appear subtle, the u-turn will likely directly ensure warming goes beyond 1.5°C, given 88% of all known coal reserves must remain in the ground to satisfy the Paris Agreement.

Countries such as the UK and USA were publicly frustrated by the last-minute reversal | COP26 / Flickr

Beyond its impact on climate change, the combustion of coal also emits a suite of hazardous air pollutants which have deleterious effects on human health, with at least 800,000 premature deaths globally each year as a result of coal-related air pollution. Given these deaths overwhelmingly occur in China (670,000) and India (80,000 to 115,000), it seems particularly perplexing they resisted an end to coal usage.

Their hesitation to commit to ending coal use is based on concerns around economic development and poverty eradication.

China’s ‘economic miracle’, which has lifted around 750 million people out of poverty in the last 35 years, was built on a boom in readily accessible energy centered around coal use. Coal has also helped alleviate India’s energy access problem and contributed to poverty reduction. However, given roughly 10% of India’s population still live below the international poverty line (versus 0.5% in China) and that coal accounts for 51% of total power generation capacity, one can understand the reluctance of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party to rapidly shift away from coal.

And although China is now the world’s second largest economy, coal still accounts for 58% of total energy use, with the ruling Communist Party unlikely to push for a rapid phase out of coal if it risks inducing social instability.

Such arguments do not exempt China and India from criticism, especially from climate vulnerable states who are often burdened with low GDP per capita values and heightened climate risk, but they do provide important context to an issue that is far from black and white.

Poverty remains a huge issue in India, with roughly 10% of its population living below the international poverty line | International Labour Organisation / Flickr

It is also worth acknowledging that the ‘western’ world owes much of its economic development to huge coal use in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, it is somewhat rich for countries such as the USA to lambast China and India, where GDP per capita is still 6.5 and 32 times lower, respectively.

So while the last-minute reversal has created much negative publicity, it may represent the sort of compromise that these conferences are predicated on, and is unlikely to slow down the strong momentum away from coal.

For wealthier nations dismayed with the climb-down, they can play their part by cutting their own emissions rapidly and providing climate funding; both for incentivising India and China to move away from coal, and towards increasing the adaptive capacity of vulnerable states.

Featured Image: Rab Lawrence | Flickr

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