The "end of coal" is in sight, according to Britain, host of the COP26 climate summit, after dozens of countries pledged to stop using coal and end the financing of fossil fuels.
Burning coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change, accounting for about 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions, Britain said. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, Thursday, more than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal entirely.
The signatories included big coal consumers such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Poland and Ukraine. They, alongside several global banks and financial institutions, also committed to ending all investment in new coal power generation.
End of coal
COP26 President Alok Sharma hailed the agreement as a major step toward combating global warming.
"Today, we are publishing the Global Coal to Clean Power transition statement, a commitment to end coal investment, to scale up clean power, to make a just transition and phase out coal in the 2030s in major economies, and in the 2040s, elsewhere," Sharma told delegates Thursday.
"I think we can say that the end of coal is in sight," he added. "The progress we've seen over the past two years would have seemed like a lofty ambition when we took on the COP presidency back in 2019. Who would have thought back then that today we're able to say that we are choking off international coal financing, or that we would see a shift away from domestic coal power?"
But the world's biggest coal consumers, including China, the United States, Australia and India, did not sign the deal. Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, wrote on Twitter that without those countries, "there's still a very real danger that the end won't come soon enough."
Separately, 25 countries, including the United States, also pledged to stop public financing for all overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of next year and to prioritize clean energy finance. Key Asian coal investors China, Japan and South Korea did not sign up. Katharina Rall, an environmental researcher at Human Rights Watch, criticized their absence.
"Countries that choose not to sign on, including Japan and South Korea, are signaling a lack of regard for their human rights obligations and for the rights of communities around the world already facing a mounting toll from climate impacts," she said.
Accusations of hypocrisy
Britain has also been accused of hypocrisy as it considers opening a new mine to produce coking coal for steelmaking. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently voiced opposition to the plan but said it was a planning matter for local government.
Mike Starkie, mayor of Copeland Borough Council in Cumbria, where the mine is planned, explained his support for the project.
"The coal that will be extracted from this mine is exclusively for the use of making steel, and if we are going to have the green industrial revolution that we need in developing solar, wind, wave — and certainly here we'd love to develop more nuclear — it's all going to take significant amounts of steel," Starkie told The Associated Press.
"And if the coal that produces the steel is not mined here, we're going to be shipping it in from around the world, leaving a huge transport carbon footprint from mines that aren't net-zero extraction, like the most modern mine that will ever be built, here in Whitehaven," he said.
Britain is also considering the development of a new oil field off Scotland's Shetland Islands, north of Glasgow, the host city of the climate summit.
A new report warns that emissions of carbon dioxide have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
"The rebound is caused by emissions from coal and gas, which grew more in 2021 than they had fallen in 2020. And behind this, we see a rapid rise in emissions in China, particularly pushed by probably economic stimulus packages, whereas other countries have tended to follow the trajectory pre-pandemic of decreasing emissions in the U.S. and Europe and increasing emissions in India," Corinne Le Quéré a professor at the University of East Anglia and co-author of the report, told the AP.
The International Energy Agency said Thursday that if all the commitments made at COP26 so far were fully implemented, global warming would be limited to below 2 degrees Celsius — a significant improvement on the 2.7 degrees Celsius rise the U.N. forecasted before the summit.