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COP23: Alliance pledges an end to coal; other key summit goals unmet

  • As COP23 comes to a close in Bonn, 19 nations including Canada and the United Kingdom agreed to stop using coal to generate power by 2030.
  • Major coal producing and using nations, including Australia, India, Germany and the United States, did not join in the new Global Alliance to Power Past Coal.
  • Participants in COP23 find it to have largely been a disappointment, with developed nations failing to promise to ramp up their Paris carbon emission reduction targets – vital if the world is to stop a catastrophic rise in temperatures above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Likewise, efforts to find clear pathways by which developed nations will raise the tens of billions needed for vulnerable developing nations to deal with climate change were blocked – primarily by the United States. Now, policymakers are putting their hopes on COP24 in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018.
A full-house greeted the Powering Past Coal event, a positive highlight of COP23. Photo by Justin Catanoso

BONN, Germany – This United Nations climate summit, short on big news or significant steps forward to curb climate change, achieved something to cheer about Thursday, 16 November, when nineteen nations – led by Canada and the United Kingdom – announced plans to phase out coal burning by 2030.

“To keep our Paris Agreement goal of staying well below 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] by 2100 we need to phase our coal,” said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of the environment and climate change. “There is also an immediate urgency. Coal is literally choking our cities and our people.”

Claire Perry, the United Kingdom’s minister of state for climate change and industry, added “In the UK, a country that iconically started our industrial revolution on the back using the coal under our island, has now in a very short number of years reduced our reliance on coal almost entirely. In July 2012, we still had 40 percent of coal in our [energy] generation profile. In July of this year, it was down to 2 percent. And in April of this year, we had our first full day of energy without coal since 1882.”

McKenna and Perry, talking side-by-side to a standing-room-only COP23 press conference, pulled together what they called the Global Alliance to Power Past Coal in just the last couple weeks. Other key members include France, Finland, Italy, Mexico, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Costa Rica – many of whom were already well on the way to phasing out coal for power generation.

Collectively, those nineteen nations – McKenna and Perry are recruiting more – account for only about 3 percent of coal use worldwide. But there was still an air of triumph in the announcement, as ministers of alliance nations proclaimed the age of coal being at an end.

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of the environment, speaks during the one-hour Powering Past Coal Alliance presentation at COP23.

“Solar power is more than 80 percent cheaper than it was in 2009, and wind is more than 60 percent cheaper,” McKenna said. “Clean power is outcompeting fossil fuels in a growing number of jurisdictions. And that is a game changer for the world. The market has moved; the world has moved. Coal is not coming back.”

Of course, it’s not exactly going away yet, either.

Coal isn’t king, but hangs on

Some 40 percent of the world’s energy generation still comes from coal, and generates massive amounts of greenhouse gases annually. Developing nations, particularly Asian countries such as India, Vietnam and Bangladesh, have plans for new coal-fired power plants, and coal-producing nations like Australia and the United States are committed to providing it. While China has peaked its coal demand early, it still emits one-third of all global carbon emissions, largely as a result of burning coal.

Noticeably missing from the alliance is Germany, which had pledged in the Paris Agreement to phase out coal by 2030. Prime Minister Angela Merkel told UN delegates on Wednesday, 15 November, that her country would likely not meet its Paris carbon emissions reduction goal of 40 percent by 2030 and is struggling with a broader transition to renewable power.

As if to illustrate Germany’s plight, this reporter traveled past a huge coal-fired power plant in the center of Bonn on the way to the climate talks, and ironically, enormous barges ferrying coal could be seen daily passing the UN negotiating site on the Rhine River.

Ohio coal train. Some 40 percent of the world’s energy generation still comes from coal. Photo by Decumanus licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

The United States also is not in the alliance. That’s no surprise given the Trump administration’s determination to revive the domestic coal industry. However, Washington state and Oregon are in the alliance, and hundreds of outdated U.S. coal-fired plants have already been shut down, with dozens more regularly decommissioned each year. Coal has tanked as part of the U.S. energy mix, plummeting from one half to one third of its energy profile in just the past 10 years.

Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance who moderated the COP press conference, explained that renewables will scale up faster once more polluting forms of energy generation decline. Nearly all coal-fired plants must come offline by 2050 if the Paris goal is to be met, experts believe.

“If you’re following the energy markets, what you’ve been doing up to now is promoting clean energy and adding incentives to build more clean energy,” Liebreich said. “The problem is, that is creating excess [energy] capacity and pushing down the wholesale price. There hasn’t been the same focus on removing the dirty. You just can’t promote the clean. Particularly in the developed world. You have to demote the dirty. Otherwise you ruin your wholesale market.”

One thing that’s been stressed repeatedly at COP23 is that a shift to renewables is not only good for a nation’s air quality and climate mitigation, but for its economy, too. This so-called decoupling – shifting to renewables is not a job killer – has taken hold over the past five years.

“Since 1990, Britain has cut its [carbon] emissions by 42 percent,” Perry said. “And our economy has grown by 67 percent. I believe that is the best performance in the G-7. It’s a win-win situation. We have more than 430,000 jobs in, or connected to, renewables; that’s more than our aerospace industry.”

While large, developed countries tend to grab the most attention at climate summits, the fate of small, vulnerable nations hangs in the balance as decisions are made. Fiji, which hosted COP23, is in the Powering Past Coal Alliance, as is the Marshall Islands. Both nations are threatened by global warming-induced sea-level rise.

Press assembled to cover the conference. COP23 offered little in the way of major climate policy breakthroughs. Now hopes have been deferred to COP24 in Poland in 2018. Photo by Justin Catanoso

“As a small island nation, I cannot stress how important this initiative is,” said David Paul, the Marshall Islands’ minister of the environment. “Coal is by far the single-largest barrier to staying within the 1.5 degree [Celsius] temperature rise, and thus giving vulnerable nations like mine the best chance of a viable future.”

He added: “The difference between 2 degrees [Celsius] rise and 1.5 degrees is the difference between the Arctic we know now or an ice-free Arctic in the summer. It is the difference between several meters of sea-level rise.”

The COP mantra: wait til next year

The coal phase-out announcement allows COP23 to end on something of a high note. However, the big hope for the summit, that the developed nations would pledge to ramp up their Paris carbon-reduction targets, did not materialize. Likewise, attempts to find clear pathways by which developed nations will raise the tens of billions needed for vulnerable developing nations to deal with climate change were blocked – primarily by the United States – until next year.

Despite the presence of the U.S. subnational delegation, led by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this COP seemed to lack the sense of urgency many delegates had hoped for as climate change in 2017 escalated in its impacts, with more drought, sea-level rise, catastrophic storms, and millions of climate refugees in Africa and the Middle East.

“It’s been a stepping stone COP; next year is the step up year,” said David Waskow, World Resources Institute’s international climate action initiative director. “It put in place the pieces that are needed so next year can consolidate the Paris Agreement with the new rulebook and really be a springboard for increasing action and strengthening action by 2020.”

Claire Perry (left), the UK’s minister of state for climate change and industry, and Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of the environment and climate change, address the press following their announcement regarding the 19-nation Powering Past Coal Alliance. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Waskow added: “I am confident that will happen. And I think this COP has been important in emphasizing the importance of pre-2020 action. We can’t wait to take action. I think this COP has been helpful in focusing minds on the urgency and action that needs to take place.”

Thus, COP23 is ending as most UN climate summits do, with the notable exception of Paris in 2015. Decision makers will wait another year – for COP24 in Katowice, Poland ­– to possibly take much needed, course-changing action. Meanwhile, global temperatures for 2017 are expected to surge into the top three ever recorded (in a La Niña year when temperatures should go lower), even as global carbon emissions set new records.

Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, USA. Follow him on twitter @jcatanoso

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