Nations pledge to end use of coal at COP26 yet demand remains high

William Gleason

November 5, 2021

More than 40 countries pledged to end their consumption of coal at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, however notable exceptions were three of the largest consumers of coal – the United States, China and India.

Still, the chair of the conference, Alok Sharma, praised the move, saying, “Today, I think we can say that the end of coal is in sight.”

Carbon emissions from coal have long been targeted by environmental groups, yet the demise of coal consumption might be slower coming than some may hope for.

Data from the IEA shows that coal is still the most widely used source for electricity, and by a large margin. In 2019, around 63 percent of worldwide electricity generation came from coal, gas and oil. Coal accounted for nearly 10 million gigawatt hours of energy -- about 160 percent more than energy derived from the next biggest source, natural gas (another fossil fuel), which generated just over 6 million GWh. Hydropower came next (around 4 million GWh). Wind was 1 million GWh and solar just 680,000 GWh.

“I don't like to be pessimistic but it's important to be factual. And coal consumption is at least close to an all-time high,” Carlos Fernández Alvarez, a senior energy analyst at the IEA, told CNN.

During COP26, the United Nations 26th climate change conference, Delegates are being asked to accelerate action on climate change and commit to ambitious cuts in their countries’ emissions, all in an effort to limit global temperature rises. Some nations have vowed to completely end the consumption of coal by a targeted date while others have pledged to stop building new coal-fired plants.

Financiers and development banks have so far pledged roughly $20 billion to help developing countries transition away from coal, including $8.5 billion from the United States and several European governments to help coal-reliant South Africa shift to cleaner energy. The Asian Development Bank also launched a new fund that will buy coal power plants in Asia in order to shut them early, although some critics have questioned how effective that plan will be (ME, Nov. 2). 

Separately, more than two dozen countries, cities and companies joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, whose members commit to ending coal use by 2030, for developed countries, and no later than 2050 for developing ones. Banks that are members pledge not to provide loans for the worst types of coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, the United States, Canada, Denmark and several other nations signed a different pledge to “prioritize” funding clean energy over fossil fuel projects abroad.

While not completely ruling out financial support for coal-fired power plants, the countries said they would refrain from any “new direct public support” for coal except in limited circumstances.

The Associated Press reported that a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss officials’ thinking, said that while the U.S. hadn’t opted to join the coal phase-out pledges, its commitment to a clean energy future was clear. The Biden administration wants to reach 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.

The promise to end coal comes as coal consumption is making a resurgence globally after years of steady decline. This year, coal consumption worldwide is expected to grow by 5.7 percent as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic and is now just below its peak set in 2014, according to new data published Thursday by the Global Carbon Project. China’s government recently ordered coal companies to increase their mining output to manage an electricity shortage that has led to rolling blackouts nationwide.


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