‘End of coal in sight’ as COP26 deals take aim at dirtiest fuel

Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, and greenhouse gas emissions from burning it are the single-biggest contributor to climate change.

Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal are the single-biggest contributor to climate change [File: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty]

The British government says the “end of coal is in sight” after Poland, Vietnam and Chile and other countries pledged for the first time to phase out coal-based power generation and stop building new plants.

The COP26’s British hosts, in a statement issued late on Wednesday, said the new signatories mean 190 nations and organisations are committing to quit the fuel.

Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, and greenhouse gas emissions from burning it are the single-biggest contributor to climate change.

Weaning the world off coal is seen as vital to achieving globally agreed climate targets, including limiting global warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 Fahrenheit) threshold to avert disaster.

The British government said signatories of the COP26 agreement are committing to ending all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally, as well as rapidly scale up clean power generation.

Participating nations also committed to phasing out coal power in the 2030s for large economies, and the 2040s for smaller economies.

“The end of coal is in sight,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, the British business and energy secretary. “The world is moving in the right direction, standing ready to seal coal’s fate and embrace the environmental and economic benefits of building a future that is powered by clean energy.”

Separately, the Powering Past Coal Alliance – an international campaign aimed at phasing out the material – said it had secured 28 new members, including Ukraine, which pledged to quit the fuel by 2035.

Coal formed roughly a third of Ukraine’s power last year.

Factors including concerns over planet-warming pollution and a worsening economic profile for coal-based power generation have curbed its share in wealthy western countries including the United Kingdom, Germany and Ireland over the last few decades.

But coal still produced approximately 37 percent of the world’s electricity in 2019, and a cheap, abundant local supply means the fuel dominates power production in countries including South Africa, Poland and India.

These countries will require huge investments to shift their industries and energy sectors onto cleaner sources.

The global pipeline for new coal power projects has shrivelled in recent years, although China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia are among those planning to build new coal plants.

The UK did not confirm if those countries would be involved in the COP26 coal phase-out pledge, or if Vietnam’s promise would affect its pipeline of coal projects already in the pre-construction stage.

China said in September it would stop funding overseas coal plants, although the pledge did not cover domestic projects.

Australia also lags behind, according to Will Steffen, climate change expert at the Australian National University, who says the country continues to invest in coal projects.

“Unfortunately, our government is actually expanding the coal industry. We’re opening up new coal mines with project lifespans of 25 years or so,” Steffen told Al Jazeera.

“If we continue with this, we’d put the Paris climate goals out of reach.”

A raft of finance announcements are expected at COP26 on Thursday to accompany the coal pledges – through new investments in clean power, and funds to support workers and regions that depend on the coal sector for their livelihoods.

Countries including the UK and the United States announced an $8.5bn partnership with South Africa at the COP26 conference on Tuesday, to help the country phase out coal faster.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies