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Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change Or Keep Burning Coal? You Can’t Have Both.

"By 2030 in the United States, we won’t have coal,” US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry claimed this week.

Last updated on November 12, 2021, at 12:17 p.m. ET

Posted on November 11, 2021, at 5:06 p.m. ET

An aerial view of an opencast coal mine in Wales
Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

An aerial view at an opencast coal mine in Wales in November 2021

At the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, diplomats put down on paper, for the first time, the collective need to accelerate phasing out coal and fossil fuels subsidies to meet their climate goals in a draft statement released Wednesday.

Countries can either keep using coal at current levels or limit future warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target of the Paris climate agreement. It’s impossible to do both. But this scientific reality has been an elephant in the room of high-level international climate negotiations for years — until now.

“It’s significant,” Helen Mountford, a vice president at World Resources Institute, told reporters. “We’ve never had a text like that before.”

Still, this new declaration isn’t final, has no timeline or other details, and comes along with some murky country-specific pledges. This incongruity on coal captures the central tension playing out at the high-profile climate talks in Glasgow: the glaring gaps between what countries must do to halt the worsening climate crisis, what countries say they will do in the future, and what they are actually doing now.

“We’ll see if that text sticks,” Mountford later said. “We’re hoping it will. It’s a really important and concrete action that countries can take to actually deliver on their commitments.”

Outside the climate negotiations, protesters pushed for the language to stay in. According to the Washington Post, they chanted: “‘Fossil fuels’ on paper now” and “Keep it in the text.”

Even United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed frustration with the negotiations on Thursday, saying that country-level “promises ring hollow when the fossil fuel industry still receives trillions in subsidies, as measured by the IMF. Or when countries are still building coal plants.”

With current climate policies in place, the world is on track to warm more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to preindustrial levels. Even the most up-to-date tallies of current pledges for future climate action put the world on track to heat up 1.8 degrees Celsius. This means that even if all the countries actually deliver on their most ambitious promises — a big if — we’ll still overshoot the key Paris goal by 0.3 degrees. This may seem like a minor difference, but the science is abundantly clear that every tenth of a degree is disastrous for humanity: more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires; more sea level rise; and, ultimately, more suffering.

The science is also clear that coal is just awful for the climate. Coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source, responsible for about 40% of carbon emissions tied to global fossil fuel use.

That’s why a growing number of officials are saying that ditching coal is among the most important steps to take for tackling climate change. Just last week, for example, Canadian environment and climate change minister Steven Guilbeault said in Glasgow: “Ending emissions of coal power is one of the single most important steps we must take to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement and the 1.5 degree target.”

Christoph Soeder / Getty Images

António Guterres, UN secretary-general, speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26)

Climate modeling results published last month by the International Energy Agency show that there’s no way to limit future global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, let alone to 1.5 degrees Celsius, without a reduction in current coal use.

IEA’s most aggressive scenario for cutting emissions lays out a road map of how to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and achieve “net-zero” emissions (when the balance of carbon going into the atmosphere equals what’s coming out, via carbon capture, plant life, and other sources of removal). Called the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 or NZE scenario, it involves the halting of new coal plants and reducing emissions from the about 2,100 gigawatts of currently operating power plants globally.

“It’s entirely gone from the power sector,” IEA modeler Daniel Crow said about coal in that scenario. “Unabated coal is entirely gone.”

A very small amount of coal would remain, likely relying on carbon capture and storage technology to pull resulting carbon emissions directly out of the atmosphere.

Train cars full of coal
Pavel Mikheyev / Reuters

Railway carriages loaded with coal are seen at a railway station in the town of Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, Nov. 8, 2021

IEA executive director Fatih Birol took this message to Glasgow at an event organized by the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an organization launched in 2017 devoted to ending coal use. So far, 165 countries, regions, cities, and businesses have signed on. That includes the 28 new members announced at the ongoing climate conference.

In many cases, participating countries have outlined phase-out deadlines: Ukraine committed to ending coal use by 2035, Croatia set a deadline of 2033, and Estonia is already coal-free.

“For our part in the UK, we’ve reduced the use of coal for electricity down to be incredibly less than 2% of our total usage,” said Greg Hands, cochair of the alliance and a UK minister, at the event. “And it will be gone from our energy mix entirely by 2024.”

But in a sign of how messy the international politics on coal are, a separate but overlapping coalition to end coal launched the same day in Glasgow. This second group signed the new “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement,” committing to, among other things, “end all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally” and “phase out coal power in economies in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for the rest of the world.”

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment minister who helped launch the Powering Past Coal Alliance, called out the second coalition for lowering the bar on climate action: Powering Past Coal requires all countries to phase out coal before 2040.

Enough with new initiatives - especially ones that weaken price of entry & do nothing to reduce emissions. Countries need to do the work & implement the commitments they've made (like 🇨🇦 is doing). No more ribbons for showing up. Only when you finish the race: 1.5 degrees. #COP26 https://t.co/fLZIpIwXWJ

Twitter: @cathmckenna / Via twitter

One of the most significant signatories of the new statement was Poland, a country that heavily relies on coal. Poland boasted one of the 25 largest GDPs in 2020. This led many to deduce Poland, a major economy, was seeking to stop coal use in the 2030s. But country officials quickly pushed back, saying the country was planning to phase out coal in the 2040s, possibly as late as 2049.

South Korea, another major coal consumer, also signed the statement last week, seemingly committing to ditch coal by the end of the next decade. The country’s trade minister has since walked back the commitment, issuing a statement saying: “We support accelerating the transition to clean power, but we never agreed to a date for the transition away from coal.”

Neither the US nor China, two of the world’s leading producers of coal, signed on to either coalition. As members of the Group of 20, or G20, these countries had already agreed this year to stop financing coal projects overseas.

Then, this week, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, told Bloomberg in an interview: “By 2030 in the United States, we won’t have coal.” The next day he, on behalf of the US, announced with China that both countries had mutually agreed to up their climate ambition and reiterated their commitments to stop helping international coal projects. While China agreed to “make best efforts to accelerate” a coal phase down, no date was given. The future of coal in the US was not mentioned at all.

John Kerry at a podium at COP26
UNFCCC

John Kerry at COP26 on Nov. 2, 2021

Even if more politicians are only beginning to state the obvious about coal’s future in a warmer world, the shift away from the dirtiest fossil fuel is already underway.

Take the US. According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, about 348 coal plants in the US have already retired or announced retirements in the past decade. That leaves about 182 currently operating plants around the country.

“That’s a ton of progress in 10 years,” Cherelle Blazer, a Sierra Club senior director, told BuzzFeed News. “As far as I know, there aren’t any plans for new coal plants.”

Seth Feaster, an energy data analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, offered even more context for America’s move away from coal. “Only 10 years ago was the peak of how much power we could generate from coal,” he explained. “In other words, between 2011 and 2020, we retired almost a third of all the coal capacity.”

Another third is set to retire in the coming decade, Feaster added, leaving the US with about one-third of its peak coal capacity by 2030 — and he expects this rapid decline will continue to accelerate.

This all happened despite the election of Donald Trump, who ran for US president on the promise to end the “war on coal” and whose administration then aggressively rolled back coal rules.

So does that put Kerry’s recently stated goal of no more coal in the US by 2030 within reach? Eh, not quite. Even Feaster said that’s a “still fairly optimistic goal.”

Complicating matters is the fate of US President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate legislation at the center of his Build Back Better plan. The single most obstructive person to getting those new climate policies over the finish line is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, whose personal fortune is built on coal. Now there are discussions about whether tax incentives he’s pushing to be included for technologies that capture carbon pollution will keep coal plants running longer.

The shuttering of coal plants across the US has pushed the country’s climate emissions downward. But in coal’s wake, natural gas helped fill the gap. So as coal-related emissions went down, natural gas emissions went up. This type of energy switch won’t halt the climate crisis.

“These countries that are planning to move away from coal should be very, very careful not to get themselves into locking emissions by switching to another fossil fuel — gas — and focus on changing this to renewable energy,” warned María José de Villafranca, a climate policy analyst at NewClimate Institute, this week.

Correction: The US is projected to have one-third of its peak coal capacity by 2030; a previous version of the article misidentified this number.


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.