The US and China have shunned the UK’s flagship coal pact, dealing a severe blow to the COP26 climate summit and drawing a warning from the world’s leading energy body, which said the chances of limiting global warming to the goals of the Paris accord were “close to zero”.
Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, said a deal to phase out the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel was one of three actions that must emerge from the Glasgow meeting for the rise in temperatures to stay below 1.5C since pre-industrial times.
Global temperatures have risen an estimated 1.1C in that period.
“Without addressing this problem, the chances to reach our 1.5C target is close to zero,” Birol told the Financial Times. “I hope all the countries are going to be part of a deal where they can take these early steps for early retirements or repurposing their coal plants,” he added.
The UK hosts wanted the summit to be known for consigning “coal to history”, but were forced to weaken the pact to draw more signatories. The timeframe was extended to allow another decade, or even longer, for coal plant shutdowns.
After frantic last-minute negotiations, 40 countries including South Korea, Vietnam and Poland signed the pledge, which commits them to shut their coal plants and stop issuing licences for new plants.
A further six countries including Indonesia and Morocco signed up to portions of the deal, without endorsing the entire pact. The world’s top-three coal consumers in China, India and US, representing 72 per cent of global emissions from coal-fired power, did not sign, nor did Australia.
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“Phasing out coal in China and India even over the next two decades is simply not feasible due to their reliance on coal to meet demand,” said Dan Klein, head of Future Energy Pathways, S&P Global Platts.
The US said it was still committed to a “clean energy future” and is preparing to end financing for fossil fuels overseas. The Biden administration has its hands tied as it tries to win the support of Senator Joe Manchin for its critical infrastructure plan. Manchin is a Democrat who represents coal-producing West Virginia.
Under the agreement, developed countries promised to quit coal in the 2030s “or as soon as possible thereafter” — compared to an original target of 2030 proposed by Alok Sharma, COP26 president. The pledge is not legally binding.
Developing countries have until the 2040s or “as soon as possible thereafter”.
Poland, which unexpectedly signed up, said that it considered itself a developing country and would phase out coal by about 2049.
Indonesia, the world’s biggest coal exporter and reliant on coal for almost two-thirds of its energy, did not endorse clause three of the commitment, which aims to stop new power plants and projects.
“We need to have funding to retire coal earlier and to build the new capacity of renewable energy,” said Sri Mulyani Indrawati, finance minister.
Coal prices have surged to record levels this year as power demand has increased after the pandemic.
Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace said the coal pact was “one more nail in the coffin of coal” but without the US, Australia, China and India signing up there was a danger “the end would not come soon enough”.
Reporting by Leslie Hook, Neil Hume, Jim Pickard, Nathalie Thomas, Camilla Hodgson and Mehreen Khan
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