In a breakthrough moment at the UN climate summit yesterday, over 40 countries pledged to eliminate using coal for electrical power generation. Only problem is the top three coal-burning nations in the world -- China, India, and the U.S. -- did not sign and will just keep polluting.
A coal-fired power plant in France emits large amounts of greenhouse gases even as children play in the foreground, inhaling it all. The new UN COP26 pledge by over 40 countries would propose to eliminate these within their borders by approximately 2040. Photo: Greenpeace, via Twitter
Coal is the single dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet in terms of both carbon emissions and toxic waste left behind even after it burns. That made the signing at COP26 yesterday on an agreement by over 40 nations that they would be phasing out the use of coal as an electrical power source so significant.
The pledges also included signatures of five of the top 20 countries with the biggest dependence on coal for electrical power in the world. Those included South Korea (the 8th largest user of coal), Poland (ranked 9th), Indonesia (12th), Ukraine (1th), and Vietnam (16th).
Those who approved the plan also cover 23 countries which have also agreed to stop issuing permits for and building new coal-fired power plants soon.
Other governmental organizations which also approved the deal where the Special Self-Governing Province of Jeju in South Korea, the states of Oregon and Hawaii in the United States, the Australian Capital Territory Act Government, and the province of Negros Oriental in the Philippines.
Even without all the dates lined up by which each signatory would shut down its last coal power plant, this was considered one of the stellar achievements of this gathering.
When the coal dust cleared from the announcement, however, there were four important holdouts who refused to sign the deal. Those were China and India, the number one and two ranked consumers of coal and which combined are responsible for some two-thirds of global coal consumption; Australia, which is one of the biggest exporters of coal on the planet and is its 10th-largest consumer of coal for power; and the United States, which still derives 20% of all electricity from coal and is the third-largest user of coal after China and India.
The U.S. offered up only to shut down overseas funding of oil, gas, and coal.
That was the same position China’s President Xi Jinping announced on September 21.
“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” Xi said then in a pre-recorded announcement to the UN General Assembly.
In China’s case at least that had some meaning. China is currently the largest financial backer of coal-fired power plants internationally.
According to those close to the negotiations on the coal power pact, there was a possibility the United States would agree to signing the pledge with an exception. The American negotiators were arguing that perhaps coal plants with embedded carbon capture technology might be allowed. They eventually dropped asking for that and instead rejected the whole deal, apparently on the grounds that Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s Democrat Senator, would have reacted badly if the U.S. had signed it.
Manchin, whose state and much of his financial fortune are tied to the coal industry, is pivotal to the passage of any of the near-term bills Joe Biden is attempting to push through on infrastructure and social programs. Manchin has adamantly stood against most of the provisions in the infrastructure package that were designed to move the country away from coal-fired power plants.
Without China, India, the U.S. and Australia on board, the coal-fired power elimination pact that is making headlines is basically “dead on arrival.”
Even if those four nations had signed, what the other over 40 nations agreed to has a lot of wiggle room left in it anyway. It states, for example, that the bigger economies are only committing to eliminating coal power “in the 2030s (or as soon as possible thereafter),” and allows the rest of those who approved the pledge to do so sometime in the ten years after that.
With so much avoidance of responsibility by so many, it is hard to comprehend how Alon Sharma, the one leading the UN COP26 event, could have proclaimed after yesterday’s phaseout pledge sign-off that “the end of coal is in sight.”
What Sharma should have done was as a minimum to use the podium as a place to chastise the big coal-using polluters from skirting their obligations to humanity and all other living things. What came out instead was just more timidity and politicking in the interest of not making waves.
COP26 is turning out as expected. It is time for Plan B.