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Coal hole

Coal hole

Step one towards Net Zero is funding alternatives to coal for countries that are hooked on it

Alok Sharma had a tense weekend and the tension was not much relieved by Monday morning. The cause was the failure of G20 environment ministers in Naples to agree on the importance of ending coal-fired power generation. Sharma, the UK’s minister for COP, said afterwards he was frustrated there was no consensus on consigning coal to history. 

He is right to be frustrated. 

  • There won’t be meaningful progress at COP26 without ambitious “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) towards shrinking humanity’s carbon footprint, in line with the Paris Agreement. 
  • Those NDCs won’t be ambitious enough if they don’t involve timetabled pledges by the world’s biggest coal users to phase it out altogether. 
  • This is because coal emits more CO2 per unit of energy than any other fossil fuel. Nothing else comes close; not even jet fuel or diesel. 
  • The world’s biggest coal users by far are China and India, and far from phasing it out they have a total of 310 gigawatts of new coal capacity announced or under construction. That’s more than all the new renewable capacity installed globally last year and six times more than would be produced by the biggest renewable energy hub ever conceived, if built. 
  • India in particular relies on coal. Even after a sharp slowdown in its rate of building new plant, more than half its power came from coal last year. Coal India is the world’s biggest coal miner. Indian Railways subsidises its fares with profits from transporting coal. Four million people and four of the country’s poorest states rely on coal for their income. Power demand is expected to soar, not least for air-conditioning, and to be met with renewables but also 100 GW of new coal capacity.

Not unreasonably, India published a dissenting note to the G20’s latest climate communique, asking richer countries not to require it to scrap coal until their per capita emissions come down towards the global average. By this measure the US uses twice as much as India; Russia and China three times as much. 

What to do? A recent Brookings study urged the US to help wean India off coal with dollars. Specifically, it proposed a US-backed Coal Plant Closure Fund to unlock low-cost credit for renewable alternatives via the World Bank; and the use of USAID money already allocated to India to support coal-dependent communities switching to other industries.

The Rocky Mountain Institute puts the cost of a full Indian coal phaseout at $23 billion. That’s not trivial, but the cost of runaway global warming is literally incalculable and the effect of stopping coal power generation is nigh-on miraculous. Ask Britain. UK carbon emissions are at levels last seen in the mid-to-late 19th century thanks almost entirely to an 80 per cent cut in coal-fired power generation in the decade to 2019.

Note to Sharma: your task at COP is to persuade rich countries to find the money to help poorer ones kick coal. Whatever it costs, it will be cheap at the price. Whatever else you do, if you do this you will have succeeded. (And no, this is not a smart time for the UK to be opening new mines.) 

Science and Tech

Clean jobs
If you’re in the oil and gas sector with most of your working life still ahead of you, it really might pay to retrain or get your employer to retrain you. Consider these numbers: 80 and 84. The first is the percentage share of all energy jobs currently in fossil fuels. The second is the share that will be in renewables by 2050, says a study by researchers in Canada and Italy in the journal One Earth. If switching specialisms sounds daunting, the upside in this scenario is a net gain of 8 million jobs worldwide. In other words, wind and solar infrastructure can’t all be built by robots. Key point: that net gain in jobs only materialises if policymakers go all out for net zero. Do this by halves and all bets are off. 


China leads
A little propaganda goes a long way but it can be instructive. A weekend oped in the Chinese state-backed Global Times itemises China’s great leaps forward in climate leadership and carbon footprint shrinkage: new 600 km/h maglev trains, 40,000 km of high speed trains, EV incentives, more hydro, more nuclear and a new emissions trading platform. Not mentioned: gigantic coal consumption and the lack of a persuasive plan to limit it (see above). Distortion by omission is to be expected. What’s really interesting about this piece is its unerring analysis of evolving US climate policy – serious efforts by Team Biden to undo Trump’s legacy with a $1.2 trillion green infrastructure package, stymied in Congress by Republicans. Bang on.

Engagement and activism

Rebellion rebellion
Paul Stephens was a Met police officer in London for more than 30 years. Then he retired and joined Extinction Rebellion. And then, two years ago, a serving officer who recognised him approached him at a demo and asked if he’d like to spy on his XR comrades. Stephens said no. As he tells the Guardian, his job as a cop used to be to protect people from threats to human life, but “the threat to life from climate change is overwhelming”. An inquiry is under way into undercover police surveillance of almost 1,000 broadly left wing and / or progressive groups over 40 years. So what about right wing / reactionary groups? Maybe the police know all about them already.


Lux life boom
Sea levels may be rising and more places getting hotter, but the ultra-rich are unconcerned, at least when buying property. “They want to live right now, in the moment,” Lourdes Alatriste, a Miami real estate broker tells Bloomberg. They can get insurance. And they have planes. So increasing signs of subsidence along Miami beach don’t bother them. They just build stronger houses. Wildfires and heat domes don’t feature in their chats with realtors, who say Southern California has never been hotter. You can say that again. 

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

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