/ 4 November 2021

COP26: Momentum gathers to end new coal builds

Richard's Bay Coal Terminal
An employee walks past stockpiled of coal for shipping at the Richard's Bay coal terminal, in Richard's Bay. (Dean Hutton/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Momentum is gathering for coal to be “consigned to history” at the UN climate talks underway in Glasgow, Scotland. 

The list of countries that have joined a UK-led coalition to end new coal includes Botswana, Zambia, Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. They are among almost 200 other countries around the world that are officially saying yes to the end of coal power — and to the single largest contributor to climate change.  

South Africa, the continent’s largest emitter, was not among them.

The UK government said that 18 of the 190 countries that are now part of the coalition, have committed to ending coal-fired power for the first time. Elsewhere, the inclusion of ​​ Poland, Vietnam and Chile has been described as “a milestone moment at COP26 in the global clean energy transition”. 

The UK, which is hosting COP26 and leading the coalition, said the agreement commits it to ending all domestic and international coal builds, and a rapid scale-up and use of clean power generation, as well as a commitment to end coal by 2030 for developed countries and 2040 for emerging economies. 

The official declaration reads: “Our shared vision is to accelerate a transition away from unabated coal power generation, as is essential to meet our shared goals under the Paris Agreement, in a way that benefits workers and communities and ensures access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.”

The coalition has also agreed to ceasing to issue all new permits for new, unabated coal-fired power projects; ceasing construction of coal-fired power; and to ending new direct government support for unabated international coal-fired power generation.

“This is on top of China, Japan and Korea, the three largest public financiers of coal, committing to end overseas finance for coal generation by the end of 2021,” the UK said in a statement on Wednesday, adding that the agreements at the G7, G20 and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to end public international coal finance sent a strong signal that the world economy was shifting to renewables.

“This could end over 40GW of coal across 20 countries, equivalent to over half of the UK’s electricity generating capacity,” the UK government said.  

Coal watchdog Ember said the momentum underscores the fact that an urgent transition from coal to clean electricity is the best choice for the economy, health and the climate.

A UN report on emission gaps to stop global warming, released last week, said 2030 emissions were set to be 15.9% higher than 2010 levels, and that 28 000 more tonnes of carbon needed to be shut down to meet the targets set out by parties to the UN’s accord. 

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said: “The updated report also confirms that, for all available nationally determined contributions of all 192 parties taken together, a sizable increase, of about 16%, in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 compared to 2010 is anticipated.” 

Ember said the announcements in Europe involved “the last big bastions of coal”. 

“In Europe, Poland is the last big bastion of coal, and will mostly finish Europe’s journey to become coal-free,” said its global lead, Dave Jones.

“In Africa, South Africa and Morocco are responsible for 95% of Africa’s coal generation, so this will move Africa towards becoming coal-free. And in Asia, developing countries like Vietnam are, for the first time, committing to phase out coal,” Jones said. “The world’s three biggest coal countries — China, India and the US — have already made commitments that are beginning to move their power systems away from coal.” 

With coal being the single largest contributor to climate change, the global phasing out of the fossil fuel needs to happen four to six times faster than at present. The UK government said it is the only way to keep temperature rise to less than the 1.5°C threshold scientists have warned about. 

And 76% of new coal builds have been canned globally since the Paris climate accord was signed in 2015. The UK’s coalition includes banks and other development finance institutions. 

“A just and inclusive transition to clean energy is a win-win for the UK and Africa. Phasing out coal is a central objective of the UK’s COP presidency and will support a cleaner, greener future for British people, while creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs across the developing world,” said ​​Vicky Ford, the minister for Africa at the foreign, commonwealth & development office. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa told an energy event at COP26 on Thursday that South Africa’s updated commitments to transforming the energy sector would need to take place at an unprecedented speed and scale. 

“For many developing economies this requires massive investment in alternative energy sources and other infrastructure,” Ramaphosa said. “It requires substantial support for workers and communities throughout the coal value chain who stand to lose their jobs, as well as their livelihoods.”

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.