Seven countries have signed a United Nations-initiated pledge to stop building new coal-fired power plants, with the goal of gathering more signatures ahead of the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow next month.
The No New Coal deal is the latest attempt at trying to rebuild a global phase-out of the dirtiest fossil fuel. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wants to end the construction of new plants this year, while COP26 President Alok Sharma has said his goal for the summit is to “consign coal to history.” . Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Montenegro, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom signed the latest pledge.
“Moving away from coal is not a death sentence for industrialization, but a much better opportunity for green jobs,” said Damilola Ogunbiyi, executive director of the UN-backed international organization Sustainable Energy for All. That is “what will drive other countries to join,” he said.
A separate initiative launched in 2017, called the Powering Past Coal Alliance, sets a higher bar. It includes 41 countries that have pledged to phase out existing coal operations as early as 2030 in many cases, in addition to promising not to build new plants. An additional 40 nations outside the alliance do not have a single coal-fired power plant in the works, according to the E3G group of environmental experts.
That means more countries were willing to commit not to build new coal plants, but not all were prepared to phase out existing operations. The No New Coal pact adds a missing step up the ladder for such nations by allowing them to make an easier compromise in the hope that it will eventually accelerate the end of coal.
In the run-up to COP26, several such voluntary alliances are being created. Last week, the US and the European Union launched the Global Methane Pledge which aims to reduce emissions from superheat gas by 30% within a decade. Last month, Denmark and Costa Rica launched the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance that seeks to end oil and gas extraction by mid-century.
The patchwork of alliances targeting specific dirty energy sources or greenhouse gases is a far cry from the systematic and orderly energy transition the world needs. Rather, it is an acceptance of the political reality of climate diplomacy that has to be adapted to the different stages of development of countries.
Burning coal for electricity generation contributes to about a third of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions.
With cleaner energy sources like solar and wind becoming cheaper to build and operate, the case for ending coal continues to grow stronger.
All emissions from coal-fired power plants should end by 2040 if the world wants to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency.
The No New Coal pact got a boost before its launch, with President Xi Jinping telling the UN general assembly this week that China will stop building coal-fired power plants abroad. He did not provide details, but the announcement could spell the end of some 40 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants. That would prevent up to 235 million tons of emissions, according to Global Energy Monitor. Xi’s promise came after similar commitments from the only other major coal power plant funders abroad, Japan and South Korea, earlier in the year.
“China’s decision is practically the end of public funding for coal,” said Chris Littlecott, associate director for fossil fuel transition at E3G. “Private investors now face all the risks of investing in coal on their own.”
The pipeline to new coal-fired power plants has collapsed globally over the past decade. Since 2015, the world has written off 1,175 GW of coal-fired power plants, roughly the same size as China’s existing coal fleet, according to E3G, thus avoiding billions of tons of carbon dioxide that would have been dumped annually.
The No New Coal pact is a big step for some signatories. “Sri Lanka has been debating whether to build new coal plants for a few years,” said Christine Shearer of Global Energy Monitor, which tracks coal power plants globally. “If countries like Pakistan and Malaysia come together, then we can really start to see the end of new coal plants.”
Still, there won’t be a significant reduction unless China, which is home to more than half of the world’s portfolio of new coal-fired power plants, stops using the fuel. Xi did not address the domestic issue in his comments to the UN.
© 2021 Bloomberg LP