/ 25 November 2021

The post-COP26 state of coal

Richard's Bay Coal Terminal
Environmental organisations say that COP26 ended with ​​90 new coal power projects, worth a total of 88GW, are likely to be cancelled. (Dean Hutton/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The post-COP26 state of coal has become elevated in global climate diplomacy with the first-ever mention of the fossil fuel in the final Glasgow Climate Pact.

Despite the watering down of the final text from “phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies” to “phasing down unabated coal and inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies”, the acknowledgement of coal has been described as a major precedent for climate commitments across the world. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that to limit global warming to 1.5°C, 2021 needs to mark the end of new investments not only in coal, but also in new oil and gas supply.  

According to research institute Ember, the recent UN climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland ​resulted in 47 countries signing the global coal to clean power transition statement, with new phase-out commitments from 11 countries

The body says more than 95% of coal capacity is now in countries with phase-out plans. 

In addition, a number of countries have committed to ending coal finance abroad. These include China, Japan and South Korea, as well as G20, G7 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

Phasing out coal is a long stretch, but cancelling new coal is among the more immediate action announcements this year. COP26 resulted in a number of countries committing to no new coal development, including Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Chile. Vietnam, the Philippines, Poland, Morocco and Kenya joined the movement, despite previous plans for new coal. 

Organisations such as the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said COP26 ended with ​​90 new coal power projects (88GW) facing the likelihood of cancellation. According to Ember, this constitutes two-thirds of the plants outside China. The organisation has found that rich countries are among the worst coal-power emitters when you adjust for population size, “and they have a responsibility to move first”.

“The net is closing in on fossil fuels, and coal is at the front-line. It was awe-inspiring throughout COP to hear leaders discuss coal phase out with a passion and energy that I’ve never seen before. The momentum has reached a new gear. However, there is a massive bridge from the real world of rising coal generation this year, to how quickly a phase down — and ultimate phase out — of coal can happen,” said Dave Jones, global programme lead at Ember. 

Coal remains the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions causing climate destruction. 

AS COP26 came to a close, the African Coal Network, a coalition of organisations calling for the end of coal-fired power and other fossil fuels on the continent, welcomed the progress.

Lorraine Chiponda, co-ordinator of the Africa Coal Network, said the organisation was demanding more committed action, and not only from those that owe Africa a climate debt, including the Global North, China and South Africa.  

“If you want Africa to join the world meaningfully to phase out coal, oil and gas, there has to be ambition with an action plan that is transparent [and has] accountability mechanisms, so that we, the people of Africa, can hold our governments to account, and our governments hold those that got rich from Africa accountable to deliver on the climate debt that will finance a people-centred renewable decarbonisation strategy for the people of Africa and not for the export of money and resources from Africa,” Chiponda said.

South Africa’s new planned coal hangs in the balance

A new study by the Energy Systems Research Group at the University of Cape Town finds that the department of mineral resources and energy’s plans to add 1 500MW of new coal-fired power to the grid would cost at least R23-billion more than a least-cost resources plan. It would also push up electricity prices, weigh on GDP, and result in 25 000 economy-wide job losses by 2030. 

It suggests that South Africa needs to review the current integrated resource plan (IRP), which was released in 2019 and dictates the country’s energy mix. 

Researchers found that if South Africa intends to meet its revised climate targets (reducing 350 to 420 metric tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions) by 2030, and still go ahead with its plans for 1 500MW of new coal power, it will cost an additional R74-billion to R109-billion.

“An examination of the costs of coal compared to alternatives in South Africa, and elsewhere in the world, demonstrates that coal power is no longer competitive in many countries, nor in South Africa. When we assess the employment-creation opportunities in South Africa of different power-system build plans, we find that the highest employment creation across the economy comes from a high renewable system and that a high coal future actually leads to significant job losses in the country,” the researchers said. 

This, among other factors, is the reason a new, youth-led case has been lodged in court to stop the 1 500MW of additional coal power in South Africa’s IRP. 

The #CancelCoal court case was launched by the youth-based African Climate Alliance (ACA); the community-based Highveld group the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action; and groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), against the minister of energy and the National Energy Regulator of South Africa. 

“New coal-fired power flies in the face of our constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing, not only for the present generations but for future ones too,” said Nicole Loser, programme head for pollution and climate change at the CER.

The court papers highlight the findings of both local and international research, such as the recently published intergovernmental panel on climate change report

“It’s clear now more than ever that we need a just transition — a just energy transition,” said ACA youth co-ordinator Gabriel Klaasen. “It is beyond time that we see young people and vulnerable communities being taken into account and that our needs and the impacts that we experience are also prioritised and addressed. Without this, I can’t imagine a future that is not defined by continued and increased suffering.”