The Future of Coal Sparks ControversyBy Pedro Alcalá | Fri, 11/05/2021 - 17:04
Nations attending the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow cannot seem to agree on how to meaningfully address the world’s continued reliance on coal power. The solutions that have been discussed so far reflect this lack of a common vision.
COP26 president Alok Sharma has been adamant in his insistence to reach an international commitment to phase out coal consumption, having been quoted as wanting to “consign coal to history” and saying “the end of coal is in sight.” Delegates were first asked to consider an international deal that very definitively phased out coal in very strict terms but most delegates turned it down. The agreement that emerged in its place is called the “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement.” It is a pledge signed by representatives of 40 countries to phase out coal from their energy mix by 2030 in the case of developed countries and 2040 in the case of developing nations. This includes a commitment to stop issuing permits for new coal plants and coal mining concessions. Some of the nations included in the agreement are among the highest consumers of coal in the world, such as Poland, a country where 70 percent of the electricity is generated by burning coal. Between US$17 and US$20 billion were also pledged by development banks and financial institutions to support developing nations in this transition.
The problem is the list of countries who chose not to sign this pledge. Two thirds of the world’s coal is burned by China and India, both of whom were absent from the agreement. One fifth of the US’ electricity is generated through the mining and burning of coal, another country that was absent. Australia, one of the biggest consumers and exporters of coal in the world, refused to sign the agreement, with its Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor going as far as to claim that the agreement would “wipe out” entire industries: “Our focus is on bringing down the cost of low-emissions technologies and making sure those low-emissions technologies can deliver for Australians and for our customers throughout the world.” Taylor’s remarks were some of the few offered by representatives of the countries that did not sign the agreement, highlighting a call for restraint that appeared to contradict the momentum of the pledge: “We will supply the products our customers need to bring down their emissions over time. This cannot happen overnight, let us be clear about this. There is a sensible pathway here; Australia will be part of it.” Mexico did not join the agreement either, also for an undisclosed reason.
Perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of the conflict over coal was offered by the UK, which offered a spirited participation in the discussion leading up to the agreement as the conference’s host country, although the country is also considering opening a new coal mine. This despite the fact that it has been British authorities who have pushed for an energy transition agreement to be finalized under the premise that burning coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change, accounting for roughly 40 percent of global CO2 emissions.