At the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, diplomats put to paper, for the first time, the collective need to accelerate the phasing out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies to achieve their climate goals in a draft statement released on Wednesday.
Countries can either continue to use coal at current levels or limit future warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target of the Paris climate accord. It is 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, vice president of the World Resources Institute, told reporters. “We’ve never had such a text before.”
Yet this new statement is not final, has no timeline or other details, and comes with some obscure country-specific promises. This incongruity over coal reflects the central tension playing out at the high-profile climate talks in Glasgow: the glaring discrepancies between what countries need to do to stem the deepening climate crisis, what countries say they will do in the future and what they are actually doing now.
“We’ll see if this text sticks,” Mountford later said. “We hope that will be the case. This is a really important and concrete action that countries can take to really deliver on their commitments.
Outside of the climate negotiations, protesters have pushed for the language to stay. According to the Washington Post, they were singing: “‘Fossil fuels’ on paper now” and “Keep it in the text.”
Even UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed frustration with the negotiations on Thursday, say that at the national level “The promises ring hollow as the fossil fuel industry still receives billions of dollars in subsidies, according to IMF measures. Or while countries are still building coal-fired power 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 pre-industrial levels. Even the the most recent counts current commitments for future climate action put the world on track to warm by 1.8 degrees Celsius. This means that even if all countries actually deliver on their most ambitious pledges – a big if – we will still exceed the key Paris target of 0.3 degrees. It may seem like a minor difference, but the science is very 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 plain awful for the climate. Coal is the most carbon-intensive source of energy, responsible for about 40% carbon emissions from the global use of fossil fuels.
That’s why a growing number of officials say switching away from coal is one of the most important steps you can take to fight climate change. Just last week, for example, Canada’s environment and climate change minister, Steven Guilbeault, said in Glasgow: “Ending emissions from coal power is one of the most steps we need to take to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement and the 1.5 degree target. .”