“The end of the fossil fuel era” may be in sight following COP pledge

A coal power station in Canock, Staffordshire (image credit: Catherine Poh Huay Tan, CC BY 2.0 license).

The end of the fossil fuel era appeared to have come a significant step closer with the signing of a joint commitment to phase out coal on day four of the COP summit (4 November).

More than 23 countries have agreed to end investment in new coal power generation, domestically and internationally, including major users of coal such as Indonesia, Poland and South Korea. Some of the largest consumers of coal failed to sign the agreement, notably Australia, India, China and the US.

The pledge included a commitment to discontinue coal power in the 2030s, for major economies, and in the 2040s for poorer nations.

And a UK-led joint statement commits 25 countries “to ending international public support for the unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022 and instead prioritising support for the clean energy transition,” said an announcement on the COP26 website. Signatories include Italy, Canada, the United States and Denmark.

“This is a significant move towards the end of the fossil fuel era,” said a statement from Greenpeace, “especially given the global scale of fossil fuel financing, and the fact that the US is backing this agreement.”

The group felt that, for the pledge “to be truly effective”, it needed the support of Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Germany and Italy.

A press release from COP26 said it was “a historic step”, and “the first time a COP presidency has prioritised this issue and put a bold end date on international fossil fuel finance.”

UK business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that “the end of coal is in sight”.

Mauricio Pereira, Head of Renewable Energy at a firm with expertise in the field, Bureau Veritas, took a cautious reading of the pledges, suggesting that “there is a long way to go before the world is ready to commit to – and adhere to – a coal phase-out and fully embrace a future of clean energy.”

“Whilst the COP26 coal pledge certainly shows lip service to the phase out of our global reliance on fossil fuels, this is really just a drop in the ocean and not nearly enough in meeting the challenges ahead in our transition to renewable energy.

“Quite simply, we need more sign up and a quicker phase-out if we’re to keep 1.5 degrees in reach.”

There has been a 76% drop in the number of new coal plants planned globally since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015.

The pledges also follow recent announcements from China, Japan and South Korea to end overseas coal financing.

In the run up to COP, there had been hopes that China’s president Xi Jinping would announce a peak in domestic coal emissions before 2025, as Greenpeace noted, alongside commitments to reduce its own coal consumption, and the failure to do so was “a major disappointment”.

China has already committed to curtail its overseas coal generation, a decision announced in October.

Commenting on the progress made at COP, Greenpeace said: “Countries must make binding national commitments to immediately end all new fossil fuel projects, whether via overseas funding, domestic licensing or permitting.”

Bureau Veritas’ Pereira said: “A transition to clean energy is absolutely crucial in minimising global temperature rises in line with the Paris Agreement, however without a clear pathway to doing this – something the Government now needs to prioritise – we may find ourselves in a similar position to where we were following Paris; conversation, with limited action.”