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4 November 2021

World signals the beginning of the end for coal

Glasgow’s industrial prowess was built on coal. As host of Cop26, the city may also be where its global decline began.

By Philippa Nuttall

Glasgow was built on coal. It has been mined in Lanarkshire, historically the city’s county, since the Middle Ages. By the beginning of the 20th century, more was being dug out there than anywhere else in Scotland. There were even coal mines inside the city. Twenty years ago, the last deep mine closed in Scotland. On Thursday 4 November, at Cop26 in Glasgow, the world essentially signed a death warrant for coal everywhere – though it is set to be a protracted demise.

Overnight, 23 countries made new commitments to phase out coal power. In addition, 25 countries and public finance institutions pledged to end overseas public funding for unabated fossil fuels by the end of 2022, and major international banks said they would stop financing new unabated coal power by the end of this year.

The announcement caused a flurry of excitement among campaigners, who have been banging the drum for the end of coal – the most polluting fossil fuel – for years. Coal is the single largest source of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. The big news was that some coal-reliant countries, such as Poland, Vietnam and Indonesia, are also onboard, even if they appear to be sticking to rather distant phase-out dates in the 2040s.

“Today marks a milestone moment in our global efforts to tackle climate change as nations from all corners of the world unite in Glasgow to declare that coal has no part to play in our future power generation,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK Business and Energy Secretary. Today’s commitments show “the end of coal is in sight”, and “the world is moving in the right direction”, he added.

[See also: What will it take to overthrow King Coal?]

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Indeed, the announcement was, for the UK Cop26 presidency, part of the “clear signal” sent by leaders that the climate conference must keep the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target in reach.

Analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA), suggested the organisation’s head Fatih Birol, shows that fully achieving all the net-zero pledges made by countries in recent days, as well as reducing methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, would limit global warming to 1.8°C. “A big step forward, but much more is needed,” tweeted Birol.

However, this target is still short of the 1.5°C pre-industrial limit. And, as climate scientist Joeri Rogelj from London’s Grantham Institute told the New Statesman, “this analysis takes all announcements at face value. Announcements for which there are currently no plans, no policies and which current trends show will not be achieved. It is a hopeful sign, but not where the world is really at.”

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Whether or not all the pledges will turn into concrete action, Dave Jones, global lead at energy think tank Ember, was galvanised to proclaim: “Today is a MASSIVE day on coal”. He explained his enthusiasm: “In Europe, Poland is the last big bastion of coal, and will mostly finish Europe’s journey to become coal-free. In Africa, South Africa and Morocco are responsible for 95 per cent of Africa’s coal generation, and so this will move Africa towards becoming coal-free. And in Asia, developing countries like Vietnam are for the first time committing to phase out coal.” 

He also insisted that this was not a quick-fix PR stunt. “This is not a sign-on list organised by the UK government,” he said, but the result of “years of national work in each of these countries”.

Among the countries who committed to phase out coal power were five of the world’s top 20 coal power-generating nations: South Korea (5th), Indonesia (7th), Vietnam (9th), Poland (13th) and Ukraine (19th).

However, there were three notable absences: the US, China and India.

Coal production is decreasing in the US, but the country is refusing to sign a phase-out date because of domestic politics, said Jones. Climate plans by the US president Joe Biden are currently stuck thanks to opposition from one of his own senators, namely Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who reportedly makes millions from stock he owns in a coal company and regularly communicates with major oil companies.

While China committed earlier this year to end overseas finance for coal generation by the end of 2021, it is not ready to switch off the tap at home yet. Thursday’s announcement puts additional pressure on them to join the coal phase-out club, said Jones.

As for India, campaigners are hopeful deals similar to that agreed this week with South Africa – whereby Western countries will pay directly to help the country move away from coal and build clean energy infrastructure – can be replicated for India and other nations.

But not everyone was impressed. “The key point is that coal is basically allowed to continue as normal for years yet,” said Jamie Peters, director of campaigns at Friends of the Earth. “Coal is so clearly over, and legislation should reflect that fact, not prolong its spluttering life.”

And there are lessons to be learned from previous decisions to end coal if the process is to be good for people as well as the climate. The former industrial heartlands of Scotland, and the rest of the UK, are still scarred by the pit closures under Conservative governments during the 1980s and 1990s.

“There are so many jobs at stake,” tweeted Samantha Smith, head of the Oslo-based Just Transition Centre, part of the International Trade Union Confederation. “Many of these jobs are good – organised with strong unions, good wages and pensions – in countries where lots of jobs are not good or not organised. Or where unemployment is high. It is absolutely critical that finance and political efforts to support coal phaseout make it a #JustTransition as important as phasing out coal.”

[See also: UK and US lead move to end overseas funding for oil and gas at Cop26]

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