GLASGOW, Scotland — In the run-up to the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow, host Britain announced one of its goals of the con- ference was to consign coal to history.
That turned out to be easier said that done. Even saying it — in writing — became quite a challenge.
Government negotia- tors in Glasgow wrote and rewrote a paragraph that spells out that fighting cli- mate change requires the world to end coal power, along with fossil fuel sub- sidies. The wording on coal was weakened one last time just before the gavel came down after coal-dependent India insisted on replacing the words “phase out” with “phase down.”
Here’s a look at the role coal plays in climate change and the energy sys- tem, and why it’s been so hard to move away from:
WHY THE FOCUS ON COAL?
Of the three fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — coal is the biggest cli- mate villain. It’s respon- sible for about 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also a fuel that is rel- atively easy to replace: Renewable alternatives to coal-fired power have been available for decades. The burning of coal also has other environmental impacts, including air pol- lution contributing to smog, acid rain and res- piratory illnesses.
WHO IS BURNING THE MOST COAL?
China, the world’s most populous country and a
manufacturing giant, is by far the world’s biggest coal consumer, followed by India and the United States. In 2019 China pro- duced 4,876 TWh of elec- tricity from coal, almost as much as the rest of the world combined, accord- ing to the International Energy Agency. But adjusted for population size the situation is dif- ferent: Australia has the highest per capita coal emissions among the Group of 20 biggest economies, followed by South Korea, South Africa, the United States and China, according to an analysis by Ember, a cli- mate and energy think tank.
WHY ARE COUNTRIES STILL BURNING COAL?
The short answer is coal is cheap and plentiful. But even as renewables become more competitive on price, coal isn’t that easy to get rid of. Elec- tricity needs are soaring as the world’s population and prosperity increase, and renewables simply aren’t enough to satisfy that growth in demand. The IEA projects that India will need to add a power system the size of the European Union’s to meet expected growth in electricity demand in the next 20 years. Coal’s role in the power sector has remained relatively stable in the past five decades. IEA statistics show that in 1973 coal’s share of global electricity generation was 38%; in 2019 it was 37%.
WHAT WAS AGREED ON COAL IN GLASGOW?
Many vulnerable countries, including
island nations who fear they will be lost to rising seas, were hoping govern- ments would for the first time in a U.N. climate deal call for the phase-out of coal. But the wording was watered down during the talks because of resis- tance led by India and in the end the agreement just calls for countries to escalate efforts to “phase down unabated coal power” without setting a timeline.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR COAL?
Coal’s future looks bleak in the long term despite the vague deci- sion in Glasgow. It’s not just driven by climate concerns: In the U.S., nat- ural gas has been replac- ing coal for years for eco- nomic reasons, though coal has rebounded this year due to a surge in natural gas prices. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, many countries have set net zero emis- sions targets, which often require phaseouts of unabated coal, meaning coal-fired plants that aren’t fitted with expen- sive technology that cap- tures emissions. Austria, Belgium and Sweden have already closed their last coal plants. Britain plans to end coal power by 2024. Announcements made in the run-up to and during the Glasgow conference mean some 370 more coal plants around the world were given a close-by date, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The U.S. has not made such a pledge yet.
Original Article by Dominion Post