In the aftermath of the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow, where a last-minute intervention by India led to a weaker declaration calling for coal to be phased down but not out, both India and China are signalling a slower exit from the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel.
“Both China and India, the biggest coal-consuming nations, have been ramping up output from mines in recent weeks to ease an autumn energy crisis that caused widespread power shortages and disrupted industrial activity,” Bloomberg Green reports. Between them, the two countries mine 14 million tons of coal per day, and account for 95% of the new coal-fired power plants brought online over the last decade, the news agency adds—444.2 gigawatts in China, and 113.7 GW in India.
The next three countries on the list—Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea—added 54 GW among them, according to BloombergNEF data.
Bloomberg says that explains why the two countries defended coal’s future during negotiations in Glasgow. “Coal not only remains crucial to their current energy needs but it looks set to have a role for decades to come,” the news agency writes. “That’s even as the two Asian giants install huge volumes of renewables and chase targets to zero out greenhouse gas emissions.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian explained it plainly Monday in a media briefing in Beijing. “In many developing countries, not everyone has access to electricity, and energy supply is not adequate,” he said. “Before asking all countries to stop using coal, consideration should be given to the energy shortfall in these countries.”
Zhao said China attaches “high importance” to the shift off fossil fuels, and has committed to peak coal consumption in 2025 and cut off funding for overseas coal projects, Bloomberg adds. The pledge to end international coal financing would be enough in itself to cut China’s carbon pollution by the equivalent of Canada’s total emissions, the news agency says.
But Zhao said the effort to “reduce the proportion of coal consumption is an incremental process” that will call for faster action from the world’s richest nations, as well as financial support and technology transfer to help developing countries make the transition.
“When you tell the poor not to use charcoal in order to save trees, and not to use coal in order to save the planet, and they can’t afford cooking gas, you need to provide an alternative,” agreed Senator Shehu Sani of Nigeria.
In the days leading up to COP 26, some analysts were pointing to the global energy supply crunch as good reason to speed up the shift off fossil fuels, rather than slowing it down. So far, though, that part about funding the transition in developing countries hasn’t been going well.
The last-minute change in the COP decision was interpreted in some circles as a new lease on life for coal, with Reuters speculating that “how humanity confronts climate change may come down to the intentions behind two words”. Other observers said the difference in the nuances of United Nations legal jargon wouldn’t change the message to investors and other decision-makers—that the overall “direction of travel” (more COP-speak) in the final Glasgow Climate Pact shows coal on the way out and other fossil fuels not far behind.
Reuters says coal stocks in Asia declined Monday despite the “solid floor” provided by the energy supply crunch, while a separate dispatch has international shipping companies “in the crosshairs of some financial backers who are cleaning up their businesses in the absence of a truly global drive by nations to renounce the dirtiest fossil fuel.”
The wider takeaway for companies and investors is that it’s time to ramp up real plans to reach net-zero emissions, Bloomberg and Reuters report. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said COP 26 had ushered in a “new era of accountability”, after participants arrived at “a clear pathway with rules, with transparency requirements”.
But all of that will depend on net-zero plans that get past the “weasel words” in the Glasgow Pact that allow future coal plants if their emissions are “abated” by largely unproven carbon capture technologies, and fossil fuel subsidies if they aren’t considered economically “inefficient”.
“We have sadly seen the hand of fossil fuel interests interfering with that text to water it down with weasel words,” Destination Zero Executive Director Catherine Abreu said in Glasgow. “This language ‘unabated coal,’ ‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’—we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it in the G20 for 12 years—‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. It means nothing.”
Meanwhile, next year’s UN conference, COP 27, will be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, while COP 28 in 2023 will bring delegates to Dubai, The Economic Times writes. Egypt is expected to face skepticism as Africa’s biggest oil producer, and Human Rights Watch is already slamming the country as a “glaringly poor choice” to host the COP in light of its “appalling” human rights record.
“Countries participating in COP 27 should press Egypt to release the thousands of people jailed solely for exercising their right to free speech and peaceful assembly,” said the organization’s Middle East director, Joe Stork.