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Curtains for coal?

Curtains for coal?

The UK Cop presidency has made ending coal use its main mission. Will a new global deal succeed in banishing the black stuff?

Ever since the UK took up the Cop mantle, coal has been in the crosshairs. As it should be: coal is responsible for a third of the total rise in average global temperature to date. Emissions from coal need to fall by four-fifths this decade to keep 1.5 within reach – twice as fast as oil and gas. It is our oldest foe in the battle to clean up the planet; humans have been complaining about the pollution it causes since the 13th century. Now, according to Alok Sharma, “the end of coal is in sight”. 

Yesterday 46 countries signed a pact promising to phase out their domestic coal production over the next three decades. For half of them, it’s the first time they’ve committed to any action whatsoever on coal. And the pledge was complemented by another big announcement yesterday: 24 countries say they will end overseas funding of fossil fuels by 2022. Coal producers should be quaking in their boots.

Who’s in? Alok Sharma and his team will be buoyed that three of the top ten coal producers have signed up: South Korea, Indonesia and Kazakhstan. The trouble is that none of them are in the top three. China, India and the US all remain conspicuously quiet on coal. For China, it’s energy security that’s the biggest blocker. The reason the US failed to sign has a lot to do with domestic politics; likewise Australia. For India, it’s mainly a matter of keeping the lights on. 

As one of Europe’s biggest coal producers, Poland is another notable addition to the list, although there appears to have been a misunderstanding about what its pledge entails – the deadlines put forward in the UK government’s “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement” are vague. “Major economies” are expected to phase out coal power by the “2030s”. For everyone else, it’s the “2040s”, and Poland has unilaterally decided it counts as the latter. The IEA is more direct about what’s needed: “Reaching net zero globally by 2050 would require phasing out all unabated coal-fired generation in advanced economies by 2030, and worldwide by 2040”.

Impressively, Indonesia’s commitment would move its previous phase-out date forward by 16 years, while Vietnam’s u-turn (it was previously planning to build 25 gigawatts of new coal capacity) is further indication that Asia may yet kick its dirty habit. The bespoke $18.5 billion financing deal that developed countries struck with South Africa to end its coal use is also encouraging, and a model that should be replicated.

Political pacts aren’t the only reason developing economies might want to move away from coal. By the numbers:

350%: the price rise in GC Newcastle coal futures between January and October this year.

$121 billion: the amount of stranded assets estimated to be left on global stock exchanges if coal power is phased out globally by 2040. 

$20bn: multilateral funding now on the table for developing countries that want to quit coal.

The big picture. “The blind spot in the debate is what are we doing with the existing stock,” Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA told delegates at a “Powering Past Coal” event in Glasgow. At previous Cops, the focus was on stopping new coal projects. This time around it’s about retiring, repurposing and replacing the existing ones. That means shutting two large coal power stations a week, globally.

But data from the last decade does show some progress. Research from E3G and Global Energy Monitor found that the world’s coal power pipeline has shrunk by 76 per cent since 2015 – equivalent to 1,175 gigawatts of cancelled projects. And, despite all his posturing, more coal projects shut down under the presidency of Donald Trump than under Obama.

The money is moving too. This Cop has shown that coal transition mechanisms like the one agreed with South Africa are possible. The investment just needs to accelerate. “Too many multilateral development banks are underdelivering on climate action,” Selwin Hart, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Climate Action, told the conference. “All stakeholders, including the MDBs, must be on an emergency footing.”

Outliers like China, India, the US, Russia and Australia know that the pressure is on to kick coal. “We are past the point of no return now,” says Leo Roberts, Research Manager at E3G. “The economics of coal was terrible going into this conference, but the politics are catching up now too. So many countries have now made these commitments that it’s looking like we really are about to make it history.”

watch now

Catch up on our series of ThinkIns at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow


Hot math
The promises being made at Cop might – and that’s a might with a fair few notes in the margin – be successfully keeping the 1.5 degree temperature rise in check. The chair of the  International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol wrote on Twitter yesterday that if countries fully achieve their net-zero pledges to date, and the Global Methane Pledge goes to plan, global warming will be kept to 1.8 degrees. That’s a lot lower than the UN’s warning of 2.7 by 2100 coming into Cop. It’s welcome news. But no one should be resting on their laurels. Selwin Hart, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for climate change, was quick to respond to Birol’s figures telling delegates that based on the NDCs submitted “we are a long way away from keeping the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement alive”. And, “I have no clue how the IEA came up with that statement” were the stark words from climate authority Professor Bob Watson speaking this morning at our ThinkIn in Glasgow. 


Data gap
We know that African nations are some of the most dramatically impacted by climate change – but it turns out that in many places we don’t have data to prove it. Conflicts, instability and a lack of investment have left scientists unable to float the meteorological balloons they need to capture information about extreme temperatures, heavy rainfall or drought. As a result, the IPCC can’t be certain just how much worse extreme weather has got in many regions – and smallholder farmers (who supply 70 per cent of food in Africa) can’t prepare when more is on its way. On Thursday, UN agencies announced they were going to do amp up weather monitoring in 75 countries –  including small island nations and some of the 46 countries (many in Africa) classified as “Least Developed” a much better outlook.

engagement and activism

Women at the table
It’s youth and empowerment day at Cop. Activists are expected to take to the cold Glasgow streets to protest about inaction on climate change. But in the warm, the skewed impact of climate change on women is a frequently beaten drum. Nobel Peace Prize winner and education activist Malala Yousafzai told the New York Times climate hub that leaders can’t treat climate action, gender equality and girls’ education “as separate issues”. She called on Johnson and Biden to not ignore that intersection when taking action on climate. A few hours later, Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia and chair of the Wellcome Trust highlighted the need for more investment in mitigation from the climate harms we are already seeing on women’s health. Like the impact of extreme heat on pregnant women, including higher chances of low birth weight. What can we do about it? Keep beating the drum beyond the conference, with women at the table. As Grete Faremo, under secretary general and UNOPS executive director, put aptly: “It’s too important to leave to the men”. 

On the streets of Glasgow: If you want to hear the truth about a city, listen to the cabbies. Yesterday it was pointed out to Tortoise that the Glasgow world leaders and delegates are seeing has had a fresh lick of paint. Including new, and much needed, road markings leading up to the SEC. 

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

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday and Phoebe Davis.

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