18 November 2021

Coal accelerating to history – but our job is not done after COP26

The Glasgow climate negotiations closed with a first ever inclusion of coal and fossil fuels in the Glasgow climate pact. This confirms what we already knew: coal is history.

The wave of coal phase out commitments in Europe continued in the run up to, and during the United Nations climate negotiations, and we encouragingly witnessed countries around the world committing to phasing out coal, from Vietnam to Egypt and Chile to Indonesia. According to a recent analysis, 370 more coal plants were given a close-by date, and only 170 plants are not covered by a phase out or a carbon neutrality commitment. Those 170 plants are a mere 5 percent of the operating fleet today.

In March, we celebrated half of Europe’s coal plants having closed, or having announced pre-2030 closure plans. Since then, four countries in Europe have made coal phase out commitments by early 2030s or earlier: Spain, North Macedonia, Romania and Croatia. Could the inevitability of Europe being coal free by 2030 serve as a “laboratory” for a global coal phase out, offering experiences to consider for efforts to phase out coal globally? 

In addition to the early 2030s coal phase out commitments, a raft of countries signed onto the global coal to clean power transition statement or joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance during the COP. Even without clear, timely coal exit commitments, big European coal countries Germany and Turkey are moving in ways unimaginable just a year ago. Germany’s “obsolete when agreed” 2038 coal phase out has aged poorly, with parties negotiating on a new government coalition catching up with the reality of a 2030 coal phase out. Turkey has finally ratified the Paris Agreement, agreed on a net zero target, and the impossible economics of coal power plants is dawning on policy makers. Turkey now needs to join the countries having committed to no new coal power, and urgently follow with a planned, just coal phase out. 

Fridays For Future rally, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, near to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpece

The few remaining laggards in Europe without a 2030 coal exit date are under increased pressure not to be left on the wrong side of history. One could see this with Poland, whose government bizarrely burned a lot of political capital at COP26 by committing to a 2030’s coal phase out when signing on to the coal to clean power transition statement, only to backtrack hours later. As NGOs we are watching and making sure laggards catch up and that coal exit commitments are not only made 1.5 degrees proof – meaning a strict 2030 deadline, but delivered on.

Being in the end game for coal in Europe, what are our lessons learnt from phase out progress? First, countries setting a coal exit date are likely to end up phasing out sooner. Cases in point include Germany, Greece and Portugal: Greece first committed to phase out coal in 2028, speeding up the exit to 2025. Portugal’s coal phase out jumped forward by two years from 2023 to 2021, with the country having earlier planned for a coal exit before 2030

The first lesson for the novel commitments seen in the lead up to and during COP26 therefore is: let’s not take current phase out commitments at face value. Our experience suggests treating them as doors being open for ratcheting up ambition, speeding up the dates to be 1.5 degrees aligned. Civil society in countries across the world will undoubtedly be campaigning for that to happen. 

Second, we’ve seen real world dynamics from coal’s poor economics to the public demanding smog free air mean that the case to exit coal is more compelling by the day. Even the most steadfast laggards are not insulated from these trends. 

Third: what peers do matters. At the beginning of 2016, coal phase outs were a reality in a handful of European countries, and have since swept throughout the continent. First movers were essential, and so were second movers, in order to demonstrate the feasibility and normality of coal exits. My expectation is that the first movers will have the same kind of impact in their regions, as what we saw happening in Europe. With the climate negotiations in Glasgow having sounded the death knell for coal, the momentum is high.

We have seen huge progress on coal in different parts of the world this year. The COP accelerated this dynamic further and gave the progress that was happening nationally and in the international public and private finance sector visibility – and there are a lot of reasons for optimism going forward: new coal is all but dead, and non-OECD nations are starting to embrace phase outs. The job is not done though: the coal exits simply must be aligned with the climate imperative. This means phase outs later than 2030 in OECD countries and 2040 globally simply do not cut it. Furthermore, commitments – important first steps as they are – only have real world impact when backed with coherent implementation plans, ensuring a just transition to a renewables-based power system that supports and respects impacted people, communities and nature. 

It’s easy to think of COPs as talkfests with no guarantee that coal plants and mines will be phased out in time globally, but we see many economic and social signs in the real world that it is actually happening far sooner than some leaders want to admit or accept. It has to happen, for us to retain a habitable planet for everyone, and it will happen, be it with a lot more hard work, courage and trust in the power of everyday people standing up for change, and in civil society holding the powerful accountable. 

Trusting in progress and working for it day after day is a vulnerable place to be – it contains hope, trust, and a belief in our own power in a very imperfect world. But there is power in vulnerability, especially when we choose to be vulnerable together in our quest for a livable, better world. This is my invitation to you to stay courageous – with the progress we have witnessed, there is more reason for it than in quite a while.

 

Meri Pukarinen, international campaign coordinator at Europe Beyond Coal

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