Pledges by rich nations to phase out coal WON’T be enough to slow climate change, study shows

By Christopher Thompson

  • Pledges to phase out ‘unabated’ coal-fired power aren’t enough, researchers say 
  • PPCA members are wealthy nations with small electricity demand, they found
  • These countries rank higher in terms of government transparency and openness
  • Major coal users such as China, where electricity demand is rapidly growing, coal power plants are young ranks lower on government transparency

Pledges to phase out coal-fired power by wealthy nations aren’t enough to slow climate change to below 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming by 2100, experts have warned.

Experts from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden analysed a worldwide database of coal power plants to work out the impacts of these pledges.

They were made by the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), a coalition of 30 countries and 22 states which aims to phase out coal power for cleaner air.

Researchers found that pledges from its members will result in a reduction of about 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (C0²) from now until 2050.

This represents just 1/150th of projected C0² emissions over the same time period from all coal power plants which are already operating globally.

Members of the PPCA mainly promised to close older plants near the end of their lives, resulting in limited emissions reductions.

The research team found that only wealthy countries, which don’t use much coal, have joined the PPCA.

They also discovered that to that expansion of the PPCA to major coal consuming countries, mostly in the developing world, meaning they would face economic and political difficulties.

‘To keep global warming below 1.5°C (2.7°F), as aimed for in the Paris climate agreement, we need to phase-out unabated coal power – that is, when the carbon emissions are not captured – by the middle of this century,’ said Jessica Jewell, an assistant professor at the department of space, earth and the environment at the university.

‘The Powering Past Coal Alliance is a good start but so far, only wealthy countries which don’t use much coal, and some countries which don’t use any coal power, have joined.’

To investigate the likelihood of expanding the PPCA, Ms Jewell, who led the study, compared its current members with countries which aren’t in the Alliance.

They found that PPCA members are wealthy nations with small electricity demand growth, older power plants and low coal extraction and use.

These countries invariably rank higher in terms of government openness and transparency.

This is because of their democratically elected politicians, relative independence from private interests and strong safeguards against corruption.

These characteristics are dramatically different from major coal users such as China, where electricity demand is rapidly growing.

Coal power plants in China are young and responsible for a large share of electricity production, and which ranks lower on government transparency and independence.

The researchers predict therefore, that while countries like Spain, Japan, Germany, may sign up in the near future, countries like China and India are unlikely to join the PPCA any time soon.

China alone accounts for about half of all coal power usage worldwide – and India, has ever-expanding electricity sectors and domestic coal mining.

Germany recently announced plans to phase out coal power, which could lead to a further reduction of 1.6 gigatonnes of C02 – a doubling of the PPCA’s reductions.

On the other hand, the US and Australia illustrate the difficulties of managing the coal sector in countries with persistent and powerful mining interests.

The recent election in Australia resulted in the victory of a pro-coal candidate, supportive of expanding coal mining and upgrading coal power plants.

More generally, the research suggests that coal phase-out is feasible when it does not incur large-scale losses, such as closing down newly constructed power plants or coal mines.

Moreover, countries need the economic and political capacity to withstand these losses. Germany, for instance, has earmarked 40 billion Euros for compensating affected regions.

‘Not all countries have the resources to make such commitments. It is important to evaluate the costs of and capacities for climate action, to understand the political feasibility of climate targets,’ explains Jessica Jewell.