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Killing coal at COP 26

By David Appleyard |

COP 26 was hailed as a success by many, but the most important global climate change conference to have taken place to date drew to a close with the world still on course to see dangerous levels of global warming.

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Last chance saloon or a truck stop to the clean energy transition?

COP26 ended on a note of optimism, with an agreement to address climate changing emissions reached by the representatives of some 200 nations. The Paris Climate Accord that forms the basis of the Conference of the Parties (COP) is still alive. It is also fair to say that the Paris Accord, though alive, is mortally wounded.

“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive, but its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action,” observed a visibly emotional Alok Sharma, President of COP26, at the conclusion of two weeks of intensive negotiations.

Nonetheless, the Glasgow Climate Pact which emerged from the conference saw signatory nations commit to renewed and increased ambition to accelerate measures necessary to address emissions. That an agreement was reached at all is a considerable achievement and it certainly makes progress on climate ambitions and addressing man-made global warming. The key question that remains: Are the agreements and the ambitions for further action that came alongside enough to avert catastrophe?

Current analysis suggests that still more needs to be done if global average temperature rises are to be limited. Indeed, the latest available independent analysis from Climate Action Tracker shows that even with the full implementation of the collective commitments made in Glasgow – their optimistic scenario – temperature rises will be still reach at least 1.8oC.

Putting that into perspective, for many Pacific nations a 2oC rise is akin to a death sentence, as sea level rises would be expected to see many island states disappear forever under the rising waves.

Killing off king coal

A key section of the Glasgow Climate Act was formally adopted, calling upon parties to escalate efforts to phase down unabated coal-fired power generation that is not equipped with greenhouse emissions control equipment.

Earlier versions of the agreement included a stronger statement of intent to phase out the use of coal, among the most polluting and highest climate impact energy resources. However, it marks historic progress: this is the first time that coal has even been specifically mentioned in a COP statement.

With India and China orchestrating the last-minute changes to the wording of the agreement to tone down the agreed action on phasing out the most harmful fossil fuels, critics have characterised some parts of the agreement as little more than kicking the can down the road to future generations. Sharma hinted at this with his comment: “We must now move forward together and deliver on the expectations set out in the Glasgow Climate Pact, and close the vast gap which remains.”

But even as some of the world’s most significant sources of climate changing emissions stepped back from a clear commitment to phase out the use of coal, there was progress.

At least 23 countries made new pledges to phase out coal power completely, including some of the biggest national users of coal for power generation. Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland, and Ukraine were among those to promise an end to coal while rapidly scaling up deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures in a new ‘Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement’. Ukraine, which has the third-biggest fleet of coal-fired power stations in Europe after Germany and Poland, committed to end coal-fired power generation by 2035.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister James Shaw was also among the signatories with a national commitment to phase out coal for electricity generation by 2037. The move follows on from an April decision to eliminate new low- and medium-temperature coal-fired boilers in the country’s manufacturing and process industries which comes into effect in 2021.

Coal-fired power generation also received a blow in the wallet at COP 26 with a slew of major finance bodies, both national and institutional, agreeing to no longer fund unabated coal-fired power projects by the end of 2022. This could see billions of dollars a year in financial support leave the fossil fuel sector and find its way to fund efforts for the clean energy transition.

"The net is closing in on fossil fuels and coal is at the frontline. Coal needs to be the first fossil fuel to go, and mid-century is clearly too late. Countries will need to submit new climate plans for 2030 by the end of next year, so there are only 12 months for countries to work out how to solve their coal problem," said Dave Jones, global lead at energy think tank Ember.

Judging deeds, not words

Commendable as climate change commitments are, the challenge of fully removing coal from power generation is still significant. Even in New Zealand – where more than 80% of power is already generated from renewable resources – coal-fired generation still provides back-up when low rainfall curtails hydropower capacity and gas supply is short.

Though COP 26 concluded with a clear acceleration towards a sustainable cleaner energy future, there are major hurdles ahead – it’s good deeds, not good intentions, that will drive success. As Sharma said in his concluding remarks: “What this will be judged on is not just the fact that countries have signed up, but on whether they meet and deliver on the commitments.”

 

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