Whether Morrison agrees or not, coal power is now consigned to history
The floodgates have broken. Diehard coal nations across the developing world have been lining up in Glasgow to forswear use of the dirtiest of fossil fuels.
Four of the biggest coal emitters in East Asia have signed the pledge, promising to abandon new projects and shut down existing plants far earlier than almost anybody expected.
It hardly matters any more whether or not Australia’s Scott Morrison joins the pact because there will not be much of a global market for his thermal coal exports in a few years. He might as well avoid all the political trouble and espouse virtue now.
Developing countries such as India are heavily reliant on fossil fuels for energy generation.Credit:Bloomberg
“The really big surprises for all of us are Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines,” said Dave Jones from the anti-coal group Ember. “These were countries that were planning an aggressive expansion of coal, and now they are on the list. So is South Korea, which is the fifth-biggest coal user in the world. We never thought we’d see this in Glasgow.”
“It’s a massive deal. The whole region is turning around and this really puts the screws on China to do more,” he said.
Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Egypt, Morocco, Ukraine, Poland, Chile, Zambia and Cote d’Ivoire, among others, have all signed the global “coal to clean power” statement, vowing never again to issue new coal permits.
‘End of coal is in sight’
The accord commits rich states to shut down existing plants by the 2030s and halt any construction under way. Poorer states have until the 2040s, but most will be well on the way years earlier. Not much remains of the “fuel poverty” canard that developing economies need coal for their catch-up growth. They have looked at the numbers and concluded otherwise.
“The end of coal is in sight. We’re choking off global financing and consigning coal to history,” said Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 climate talks.
It hardly matters any more whether or not Australia’s Scott Morrison joins the pact because there will not be much of a global market for his thermal coal exports in a few years.
It has been a good week for Mr Sharma. On Tuesday, deforestation and methane leakage (another low-hanging fruit) were both confronted head-on. Next was the coal coup, which is a political stunner, the fruit of months of skilful diplomacy and creative forms of finance that perhaps only the City of London could have pulled off.
Pakistan’s climate chief Malik Aslam was effusive in his praise, saying the British had pulled an impossible rabbit out of the hat, a view widely shared among officials from the developing world at this COP26.
The phase-out model for the world is the Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa, an $US8.5 billion ($11.5 billion) package unveiled in Glasgow with the backing of the US, UK, and the EU.
South Africa relies on coal for 87 per cent of its electricity and 74 per cent of its primary energy. Its power behemoth Eskom is not only near bankruptcy, but just about the dirtiest polluter on the planet. The problem has long seemed intractable.
From this grim starting-point, the country has committed to go all the way to a UN-approved “1.5 degree” climate path as soon as 2030. Eskom will retire up to 12 gigawatts (GW) of coal, using a mix of grants and concessionary loans to re-employ the workforce and switch the whole system to renewables. “We’re doing this with unprecedented speed and scale,” said president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Indonesia could be next in line for this formula. It is planning to shut 5.5GW of coal plants over the next eight years so long as the world helps to fund the wind, solar, and geothermal needed to replace them. It is pressing ahead against entrenched vested interests, even though it mines coal in abundance and relies on the fuel for 65 per cent of its energy. The Philippines is eyeing closure of 10 out of its 28 coal plants.
While India’s Narendra Modi has not signed the pledge on coal, he has committed to 500GW of renewables by 2030, with a clean power target of 50 per cent. “We’re not worried about rising coal in India any more because they are not going to need it. The story is really about how quickly they are going to retire plants,” said Ember’s Mr Jones.
Which leaves China as the last big hold-out. Global Energy Monitor says it commissioned 38GW of new coal in 2020, three times as much as the rest of the world put together. It makes up 85 per cent of all plants under development anywhere. It also accounts for 28 per cent of global emissions , and the share is rising fast.
The world is not going to tolerate this for long. China is isolated in Glasgow. Its bid to break US dominance and court global favour with its brand of post-Western Confucian leadership is going nowhere unless it bites the bullet on coal.
China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua has been strangely silent at COP26 so far. It is hard to believe that he will leave without offering something. There may yet be a big surprise.
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