Coal Is Out At COP26 – Except For Countries Where It’s Still In!

Originally published on on November 13, 2021

The choice is to preserve fossil fuel industries that improve economic conditions and financial stability versus the desire for a green future without the predicted threats of climate change.

The recent climate conference COP26 reached for an agreement on coal, the dirtiest of the main fossil fuels. Over 40 countries agreed to phase out coal in richer countries by 2040 and in poorer countries by 2050.

On the final day, words to phase out “unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” are still in the final conference recommendations. Unabated coal means coal produced without using carbon capture and storage as a net-zero escape hatch.

Private entities also signed on, and some major banks said they would end financing for the coal industry. Notable by their absence are the US, China, India and Australia.

Why focus on coal? It produced just under 40% of the world’s electricity in 2019. The signers agreed to stop investing in new coal sources of electricity both domestically and internationally.

Coal is a primary source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. China and India alone account for 64% of global coal consumption and emit about 35% of the world’s GHG (over half of the world’s GHG is emitted by China, USA, EU, and India.)

Is coal a polluter or not?

Mike Bloomberg and Carl Pope in 2017 labeled coal as a primary source of pollution at lower atmospheric levels. Burnt coal particulates cause smog that worsens lung conditions like asthma in the young and the old.

In a recent interview, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California 2003 – 2011, said the CO2 from burning fossil fuels is a source of pollution, even though it resides in the upper, not lower, atmosphere. While he was governor, both political sides agreed to call it pollution and they found common ground to enact climate-friendly laws such as limits on vehicle exhaust emissions.

China is still in coal.

China is the number 1 coal burner, ahead of Japan and India. This is the main reason that China is the largest GHG emitting country. A lot of China’s coal used to come from Australia but after late 2020, political tensions stopped all imports to China. Australian coal was replaced by Russia and Indonesia.

The best that China can do is commit to net-zero GHG emissions by 2060 – ten years beyond the most common goal of 2050. This 10-year delay can be attributed to China’s plans to upgrade its remaining economy to levels previously achieved by the US and Europe (Figure 1).

Annual total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production. Source: Our World in Data.

Figure 1. Annual total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production. Source: Our World in Data.

Who can fault this argument? Through 2017, the US and Europe together have contributed 47% of all GHG emissions since the industrial revolution began. China has added 13% and India 3%.

Figure 1 shows carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels and cement-making over time. CO2 is a proxy for GHG as it’s the dominant component of GHG. The figure reveals the industrialization of US and Europe, first, then later the industrialization of a second group of countries, mostly China, India, Africa and the Middle East.

The crux of the issue is: have China and India industrialized to the same extent that the US and Europe have? If you have visited the countryside of China, away from the shiny new cities, you know the answer to this question.

China has over 1,000 coal-burning power plants operating. China has to find a way to push back from coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, to avoid the rise shown by the dashed line in Figure 1.

Replacing coal power plants by natural gas will help, as it has helped in US (see flattening of the US curve in Figure 1.)

India is still in coal.  

As in Figure 1, India has argued that more industrialized countries have contributed more GHG over time, so they should take more responsibility for cutting GHG emissions.

When a country is presented with a choice between energy-poverty and GHG pollution, they choose to address the former. The climate crisis may cause massive physical and economic instability in decades to come, but they have untold millions burning coal or wood or waste for cooking or heating in primitive homes right now.

Fossil energy is relatively cheap and reliable, and if it’s available now or can soon be hooked up who can question its efficacy?

Besides, the threat of worsening extreme weather events is less in India because the country has had extreme disasters, such as monsoon rains and floods, almost every year for hundreds of years.

Similar to China, India wants to upgrade its economy to desired levels, but in this case the country has further to go. Thus India announced at COP26 a goal of 2070 to reach net-zero GHG emissions — another 10 years beyond China.

India has boosted renewables production, such as solar, wind, and hydro power which reached 23% of energy production in 2019.

The US is still in coal.

The US is number 4 in exporting coal. If it agreed to cut out coal by 2040, it would have a big economic impact on trade imbalance, country wealth, and local jobs and industry. The US has seen this before with the demise of cotton and clothing industries.

To be clear, coal is on the way out in the US. Coal mining hit a peak in 2008 but production fell by 33% by 2017. Total labor hours have dropped by 39% during the same period.

The move to change over from coal power plants is accelerating. Big commercial names have, within the last few years, recently joined the list of those pledging to reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, usually by 2050: Excel Energy, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Ameren, Entergy, and Vistra Energy. Vistra, the largest independent, non-utility company, announced closures by 2027 of all seven of its coal-burning plants in the mid-western states.

But it’s not a quick or complete changeover to renewables. Duke Energy’s target by 2030 is to reduce emissions by 50% from 2005 levels, which may not be enough to make net-zero by 2050. Ameren will close coal-burning plants slowly – over twenty years.

Coal use in power plants has been replaced by natural gas in the past 15 years, mainly a result of cheap gas due to the shale gas revolution.

However, in the past 7 months the price of natural gas has doubled in the US, and some power plants have gone back to burning coal.

Australia is still in coal.

Australia is the number 2 exporter of coal in the world (roughly 26 %). Australia wants to maintain its fossil fuel industry, a major source of profits, jobs, economic security, and national wealth.

But Australia has just announced its commitment to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.

How does a country save their coalfields and reduce their GHG? First, invest A$20 billion over 20 years in low-emission technologies, according to Morrison. One such is to improve agriculture techniques to capture carbon in soil. Second, develop greener industries such as clean hydrogen. Third, reduce solar energy costs.

But if there is no cutback in fossil fuel production, it’s likely that GHG will keep rising into the atmosphere over Australia, as well as Japan and other places that buy Australian coal.

It seems that Australia must be relying on carbon-capture and storage (CCS) or other uncertain approaches to remove the GHG to reach net-zero by 2050. The net zero concept must have an escape hatch to offset the emissions of GHG from burning of the fossil fuel, and such an escape would have to be a gigantic hatch for Australian coal. 

Speaking at a press conference recently, Morrison said, “The government would achieve net zero by 2050 ‘the Australian way’ by balancing the risk of climate change without damaging the economy.”


Phasing out coal is a worthy ambition, because it’s such a dirty-burning fuel – for both the lower (smog) and upper (GHG) atmospheric pollution. 

It boils down to choosing to preserve fossil fuel industries that improve economic conditions and financial stability, versus the desire to have a green future where the predicted ravages of climate change do not eventuate.

The contrast is made clearer when poorer nations point out that wealthier nations have contributed excessively to GHG emissions while they were industrializing their countries.   

To phase out coal by 2050 is an impractical goal for some countries – unless wealthier countries provide substantial assistance.

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