Catastrophic climate change cannot be stopped if we continue to use coal

Catastrophic Climate Change Cannot Be Stopped If We Continue To Use Coal

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An aerial view of an opencast coal mine in Wales in November 2021

At the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, diplomats first documented the collective need to accelerate the phase-out of subsidies for coal and fossil fuels to achieve their climate goals in a draft statement released on Wednesday.

Countries can either continue to use coal at current levels or limit future warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target of the Paris climate agreement. It’s impossible to do both. But this scientific reality has been an elephant in the room of high-level international climate negotiations for years — until now.

“It’s important,” said Helen Mountford, vice president of the World Resources Institute, told reporters. “We’ve never had a text like this before.”

Still, this new statement isn’t final, lacks a timeline or other details, and comes with some shady country-specific commitments. This incongruity over coal reflects the central tension at the heart of the high-profile climate talks in Glasgow: the glaring gap between what countries need to do to halt the worsening climate crisis, what countries say they will do in the future, and what they actually are doing now.

“We’ll see if that text sticks,” Mountford said later. “We hope so. It is a very important and concrete action that countries can take to actually deliver on their commitments.”

Outside the climate negotiations, protesters urged to let the language in. According to the Washington Post, they chanted: “’Fossil fuels’ now on paper” and “Keep it in the text.”

Even United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed frustration with the negotiations on Thursday, say country level “Promises ring hollow if the fossil fuel industry continues to receive trillions in subsidies as measured by the IMF. Or if countries still build coal-fired power stations.”

With current climate policies, the world is on track to warm by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to pre-industrial levels. Even the most current figures of current commitments to future climate action put the world on track to warm 1.8 degrees Celsius. This means that even if all countries deliver on their most ambitious promises – a big if – we will still exceed the Paris main target by 0.3 degrees. This may seem like a small difference, but science is abundantly clear that every tenth degree is disastrous for humanity: more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires; more sea level rise; and end up suffering more.

The science is also clear that coal is simply bad for the climate. Coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source, responsible for: about 40% of carbon emissions linked to global fossil fuel use

That’s why a growing number of officials say that dumping coal is one of the most important measures to tackle climate change. Last week, for example, Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said in Glasgow: “Ending coal emissions is one of the most important steps we need to take to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the 1.5-degree target.” to get. .”

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UN Secretary General António Guterres speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26)

Climate model results published last month show by the International Energy Agency that there is no way to limit future global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees Celsius, without a reduction in current coal use.

The IEA’s most aggressive scenario for cutting emissions includes a roadmap to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to achieve “net zero” emissions (when the balance of carbon entering the atmosphere equals what comes out, via carbon capture, plant life and other disposal sources). Called the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 or BZE scenario, it involves shutting down new coal-fired power plants and cutting emissions from the roughly 2,100 gigawatts of currently operating power plants worldwide.

“It’s completely gone from the energy sector,” IEA modeler Daniel Crow said of coal in that scenario. “Unabated coals are completely gone.”

A very small amount of coal would remain, likely depending on carbon capture and storage technology to take the resulting carbon emissions directly from the atmosphere.

Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

Train wagons loaded with coal are seen at a train station in the city of Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, November 8, 2021

IEA Director Fatih Birol brought this message to Glasgow at an event hosted by the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an organization founded in 2017 and committed to ending the use of coal. So far, 165 countries, regions, cities and companies reported. That includes the 28 new members announced at the ongoing climate conference.

In many cases, participating countries have set phasing-out deadlines: Ukraine has pledged to stop using coal by 2035, Croatia has set a deadline of 2033 and Estonia is already coal-free.

“For our part in the UK, we have reduced the use of coal for electricity to an incredibly less than 2% of our total consumption,” said Greg Hands, alliance co-chair and a UK minister, at the event. “And by 2024 it will completely disappear from our energy mix.”

But as a sign of how messy international coal politics is, a separate but overlapping coalition was launched the same day in Glasgow to end coal. This second group signed the new “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement”, which committed, among other things, to “end all investment in new coal power generation at home and abroad” and “phase out coal power in economies in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for the rest of the world”.

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment minister who helped build the Powering Past Coal Alliance, convened the Second Coalition to Lower the Bar for Climate Action: Powering Past Coal Required all countries to phase out coal by 2040.

Enough with new initiatives – especially the ones that weaken the entrance fee & do nothing to reduce emissions. Countries must do the work & implement the commitments they have made (as 🇨🇦 does). No more ribbons to show up. Only when you finish the race: 1.5 degrees. #COP26

Twitter: @cathmckenna / Via twitter

One of the main signatories to the new declaration was Poland, a country heavily dependent on coal. Poland had one of the 25 largest GDPs in 2020. This led many to deduce that Poland, a major economy, wanted to stop using coal by the 2030s. But country officials quickly pushed back, saying the country plans to phase out coal by the 2040s, possibly not until 2049.

South Korea, another major coal consumer, also signed the statement last week and appeared to commit to dumping coal by the end of the next decade. The country’s trade minister has since reversed the pledge, issue a statement stating:: “We support accelerating the transition to clean power, but we have never agreed on a date for the transition from coal.”

Neither the US nor China, two of the world’s largest coal producers, have joined either coalition. As members of the Group of 20, or G20, these countries had already this year agreed to stop financing coal projects abroad.

Then, this week, John Kerry, US Presidential Special Envoy on Climate, told Bloomberg in an interview: “By 2030, we will run out of coal in the United States.” The next day, on behalf of the US, he announced with China that both countries had mutually agreed to step up their climate ambition and reiterated their commitments to stop aiding international coal projects. While China agreed to “make every effort to accelerate the coal phase”, no date was given. The future of coal in the US was not discussed at all.


John Kerry at COP26 on November 2, 2021

Even as more and more politicians begin to explain the obvious about coal’s future in a warmer world, the shift away from the dirtiest fossil fuel is already underway.

Take the US. According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, about 348 coal-fired power stations in the US have already retired or announced their retirement in the last ten years. That leaves about 182 currently operating factories across the country.

“That’s a lot of progress in 10 years,” Cherelle Blazer, senior director of Sierra Club, told BuzzFeed News. “As far as I know, there are no plans for new coal-fired power plants.”

Seth Feaster, an energy data analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, provided even more context for America’s shift away from coal. “Just 10 years ago was the peak of how much power we could generate from coal,” he explained. “In other words, between 2011 and 2020 we decommissioned nearly a third of all coal capacity.”

Another third will retire in the next decade, Feaster added, leaving the US about two-thirds of its maximum coal capacity by 2030 — and he expects this rapid decline to continue to accelerate.

This all happened despite the election of Donald Trump, who ran for US president with a promise to end the “war on coal” and whose administration subsequently aggressively rolled back the coal rules.

So that puts Kerry’s recently set goal of having no coal in the US by 2030 within reach? Uh, not quite. Even Feaster said that’s a “still fairly optimistic goal.”

Complicating matters is the fate of US President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate legislation at the heart of his… Build back Better plan. The most annoying person to get that new climate policy across the finish line is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, whose personal fortune is built on coal. Now there are discussions about whether tax incentives he urges will be included for technologies that capture carbon pollution will keep coal-fired power stations running longer.

The formwork of coal-fired power plants in the US has pushed down the country’s climate emissions. But in the wake of coal, natural gas helped fill the gap. So when coal-related emissions fell, natural gas emissions rose. This type of energy switch will not stop the climate crisis.

“These countries that are planning to move away from coal need to be very, very careful not to get themselves into blocking emissions by switching to another fossil fuel – gas – and focusing on changing these to renewable energy,” warned María José de Villafranca, climate policy analyst at NewClimate Institute, this week.

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