The Glasgow Climate Pact urges countries to “accelerate efforts to” phase out“, rather than “phase out”, coal flow that is not softened by carbon capture and storage. This subtle text change surfaced at the end of COP26, the last UN conference on climate change, at the urging of India and China. So these two countries are responsible for the disappointing outcome of the summit, as many suggest?
Formed largely by plants and animals buried in the Carboniferous period from 359 to 299 million years ago, fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas are found on every continent. But their worldwide distribution is not even – India and China have significant coal reserves, but relatively little natural gas.
Provide 37% of the world’s energy, coal is the largest source of electricity generation worldwide. It is expected to remain the main source of energy in the 2030s, especially since its use in India is in China: still growing.
The UK has reduced its CO2 emissions by switching from coal to natural gas. Coal produced 41% of the country’s electricity in 2012, while natural gas made up 25%. A decade later, coal almost not present in the energy mix of the UK and natural gas, the biggest source.
Why natural gas burns cleaner than coal is due to a chemical quirk. The amount of CO₂ produced when a particular fuel is burned is largely a function of the elements that make up the fuel. Natural gas consists for the most part of carbon and hydrogen. This combination has a very high energy content compared to other fuels and thus produces relatively less CO₂ emissions per unit of combustion it generates. Impurities such as sulfur, which are common in coal, increase the amount of CO₂ generated per unit of heat. This means that even the highest quality coal produces double the CO₂ emissions of natural gas per unit of energy.
Energy demand is closely related to productivity. As economies such as China and India grow and develop rapidly, their energy demand is expected to increase rise together. But their ability to follow the UK in switching from coal to natural gas as a primary source of electricity generation is limited as they have relatively less natural gas. The UK produces more than half of its natural gas from the North Sea and has made great strides in offloading coal.
No mitigation without help
Per person emissions in both China and India are still substantially lower than almost all developed countries. Emissions per person in India are less than a quarter of the global average and about a tenth that of the US. Near a quarter of all CO2 emissions come from manufacturing products that are exported and consumed in other countries. Textiles and clothing exported from India and South Asia account for: more than 4% of global emissions.
Labeling India and China as the main villains of COP26 is a useful story. The financial aid that the rich countries promised but failed to deliver as part of the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 was supposed to help developing countries ditch coal for cleaner energy sources. And while the world denounced India and China for weakening the Glasgow Climate Pact’s coal resolution, few questioned the fossil fuel projects underway in developed countries like the UK. Cambo Oil Field and the Line 3 oil pipeline between Canada and the US.
Switching from coal to gas offers a quick and partial win for reducing CO₂ emissions, but it depends on geology and geography. A quick switch to renewable energy sources is easier when the demand for energy does not grow as fast, as in fast developing countries. These countries need financial help from wealthier countries to make that leap. Until that is achieved, developed countries have no right to lay the disappointment of COP26 at the feet of China and India.
This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage of COP26, the climate conference in Glasgow, by experts from around the world.
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