【Newsletter】COP26 sees end to coal as countries commit to change

    25 Nov 2021

    The COP26 climate summit has heralded progress in the fight to tackle global warming, saying pledges made at the gathering mean that an end to coal power is in sight, though activists urge more action.

    The United Nations Climate Change Conference, the 26th of its kind, was held in Glasgow in the UK, from October 31st to November 12.

    European Union President Ursula von der Leyden said that that progress had been made on three key objectives to get the 2015 Paris Agreement back on track. There were further commitments to cut emissions to keep within the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees. Developed nations agreed to step up financing to reach an annual target of $100 billion to help emerging economies switch to greener fuels. While there was also a general accord for more transparency in reporting climate data and a pledge to return in 2022 to revisit emission goals. 

    The summit was attended by top officials from 197 nations around the world, as well as 30,000 delegates from non-government organisations, the business community and leading scientific institutions.

    China’s President Xi Jin-ping attended via video link. In his absence the country’s top climate official, Xie Zhen-hua, was seen as a pivotal figure in the talks, which aimed at weaning countries from their dependence on coal.

    Xie was a Lui Che Woo Prize Laureate in 2017 for his leadership in China’s efforts to prevent climate change. He was crucial to the success of international negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement, as the policies he developed for China served as models for other developing nations.

    In the Paris Agreement, nations pledged to keep global temperatures to within 1.5 percent of their pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, drastic reductions equivalent to two gigatonnes of CO2 are needed a year. This has to be maintained until net emissions of greenhouse gases are zero, which would likely take until about 2040.

    After a 5.4 percent decline last year during Covid, emissions are set to increase 4.9 percent this year as global economies ramp up again and populations are freed from lockdowns. 

    Encouraging governments and industry to phase out coal-powered electricity in favour of renewable sources of energy is at the heart of the efforts to cut back emissions. However, it’s a contentious subject.

    Developing nations are concerned that being forced to take such steps to curb their emissions will harm their economic growth and further increase wealth disparities with richer nations. They argue that the historical pollution caused by rich nations as they developed their economies caused the environmental damage in the first place.

    Add to that reports that show the wealthy are still far more responsible for polluting behaviour than those less well off. An Oxfam and Stockholm Environment Institute report found that the wealthiest 1 percent will be responsible for around 16 percent of global emissions by 2030, with their carbon footprints boosted through their use of private jets and mega yachts.

    The need to rebuild after Covid, combined with soaring energy prices, have also been a setback, with countries such as China doubling down on coal to meet their domestic energy needs.

    Still, leaders at the summit say they have moved forward, with a renewed focus on financial aid to help poorer nations meet their climate change goals. 

    A total of 23 countries made new commitments to phase out coal power by 2050 during the gathering, including five of the top power using countries, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and Ukraine. That takes the total number of nations committed to phasing out coal to 46.

    In addition, a group of 25 countries, including Canada, the U.S. and Denmark, signed a statement committing an end to international public support for the sector by the end of 2022 and instead prioritising a move to clean energy.

    This may shift $17.8 billion a year in public support for fossil fuels towards a transition to clean energy. China, Japan and South Korea have also committed to stop financing overseas plants, which effectively cuts off access to funding for new fossil fuel projects.

    In a press release, COP26 called this “an historic step.”

    “It’s the first time a COP presidency has prioritised this issue and put a bold end date on international fossil fuel finance,” the UK COP26 Presidency said. “COP26 has set a new gold standard on the Paris alignment of international public finance and sends a clear message for private investors to follow.” 

    However, climate activists say the 1.5 percent target won’t be met if the largest emitters - such as China and the US - do not clearly commit phase out fossil fuels. 

    Speaking at the summit, Xie said that China is the largest emitter because “it’s at a special development stage.” He added that China was unable to start reining in its reliance on coal-fired power plants any quicker than it was doing.

    Other Lui Prize Laureates have also been active in lobbying for change at the summit.

    The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a report entitled “10 New Insights in Climate Science,” which brings together the most up to date and in-depth findings in climate research. 

    The report, which is based on insights from 60 leading scientists, finds that the 1.5 percent target for warming, which is one of the overarching aims of the COP26, is still within reach.

    However, “drastic global action” is required to achieve the net-zero target by mid-century.

    The report urges global decision makers to begin removing carbon-intensive infrastructure, even if it remains economically viable. This is still a contentious issue, with India and China forcing a last-minute change of wording in the final communique to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal.

    The WMO report also predicts that scientists will need support to develop a diverse portfolio of carbon-removal technologies that will be necessary to remove gases from the atmosphere if the 1.5 percent target is exceeded. 

    As part of these efforts, it stresses the importance of nature-based solutions, such as reforestation to allow trees to filter carbon monoxide from the air.

    However, there is a caveat as much of the potential for these nature-based solutions (NbS) is to be found in less industrialised countries, in particular in areas with indigenous communities with insecure rights. As per the COP26 goals, these solutions will need to be adapted to protect communities and habitats.

    “There is a risk that NbS could shift the responsibility for decarbonisation to vulnerable communities if there is insufficient regulation,” the WMO report said.

    Another insight in the report was that policy makers often overlook the beneficial impact of small changes in household behaviour.

    Although not as headline grabbing as the closure of power plants, individual efforts to adopt lifestyles that are more compatible with the 1.5 percent target can be highly effective.

    Hans-Josef Fell, the 2018 Lui Prize Laureate for Sustainability backs this approach. While governments need to cooperate to deliver the goals, that cooperation also needs to filter down to the individual and community level to achieve results.

    Fell, who is an internationally recognised founding figure of the global renewable energy movement, is expecting more discussion on global energy transformation.

    “At the centre of climate protection should be a transformation of the global energy supply towards 100 percent renewable energies, towards organic agriculture and towards a waste-free circular economy,” he wrote. “But none of this is even up for discussion at the official Intergovernmental Conference in Glasgow, despite the insistence of numerous NGOs.”  

    “It would make much more sense to support the excellent civic activities in Germany and abroad that organise 100 percent renewable energies and other climate protection measures in their municipalities and regions by 2030.”

    “The strength lies in the decentralised activities that are emerging more and more around the world and which activate local climate protection,” he said.

    He said it’s this kind of local activism and education about climate change that will ultimately help to shift behaviour and to help people to realise that economic prosperity and renewable sustainable living go hand-in-hand.

    Whether global leaders maintain their commitments remains to be seen, however the summit has provided a focal point to highlight the interlocking nature of the issues Lui Prize Laureates are tackling and will continue to tackle even without the global spotlight.

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