The U.S., UK and other countries want world governments to commit to a phaseout of the use and financing of coal-fired power generation, but officials who met at the G20 Environment Ministers Meeting summit in Naples, Italy, this past week ended their talks without an agreement on the future of the fuel.
The topic will come up again at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year. The talks in Italy, which ended July 23, showed the difficulty among developed nations in reaching a consensus on carbon emissions, with coal-fired power still a dominant part of the energy mix in many countries.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) earlier this month reported that coal-fired generation is experiencing a resurgence this year after the pandemic-driven drop in 2020. The IEA has projects 3% growth in the construction of new coal-fired facilities in 2022. China is among the countries with several new coal plants either planned or under construction.
China, India Building New Coal-Fired Plants
The use of coal for power generation has been declining in the U.S. and across most of Europe for several years. But even as China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, and India increase their use of renewable energy resources, they continue to build new coal-fired generation—and work to keep existing plants running—as the countries continue to face increased demand for power.
According to “Yale Environment 360,” published by a group at Yale University, China put 38.4 GW of new coal-fired power generation into operation last year, more than three times the amount of new coal capacity that came online in the rest of the world.
The U.S. and Great Britain are driving efforts to stop construction of new coal plants in order to limit global warming. “It is frustrating that despite the progress made by some countries, there was no consensus in Naples to confine coal to history,” Alok Sharma, the British official who will lead the COP26 meeting in November, said in a statement.
Challenges to Paris Accord
Reports from last week’s summit said several countries, including India, China, and Russia, objected to the inclusion of language about ending the use of coal in the meeting’s communique. Climate scientists are mostly in agreement that the used of coal-fired power worldwide must be reduced in order to have any chance of meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which called for limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial levels.
The National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a recent report said the June 2021 average global surface temperature was the fifth-highest for June since global recordkeeping began in 1880. The group said North America had its “highest June temperature departure [from normal readings] on record,” with Asia’s June 2021 temperature departure tied with 2010 as the second-highest for the month on record.
The contiguous U.S. had its warmest June on record, as did Africa and New Zealand, while Europe had its second-warmest June on record.
“The most important thing is getting off of coal as fast as we can,” John Kerry, the U.S. special climate envoy, told the UK’s BBC News in the run-up to last week’s meeting. “There are countries that are still bringing coal online that could be building out greater renewable and alternative, sustainable energy possibilities.”
Substitutes for coal, with less environmental impact, are being introduced as a way to keep coal-fired power plants operating, while utilities continue to convert coal units to burn natural gas, both in the U.S. and Canada among other countries.
Climate Change Targets
The UK government in April set what it called “the world’s most ambitious climate change target,” a law designed to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. The UK in a release after last week’s summit said the environment ministers did agree to “accelerate action” this decade on climate change initiatives and develop strategies to keep the targets of the Paris accord in reach.
UK officials also said they want nations to make new pledges to cut emissions ahead of the November meeting. The U.S. and European Union already have announced new targets; the Biden administration in April said it wanted to achieve at least a 50% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, across the economy.
China and India, though, are among the nations that have not revised their pledges under the Paris accord, according to the environment ministers.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).