November 15, 2021
Last updated:

COP26: The death of coal and the rise of clean technology

Greta Thunberg’s summary of COP26 was rather short and to the point: “blah, blah, blah”. Beyond the empty words and promises, we try to dig a little deeper to see what was achieved at the latest Conference of the Parties and where the biggest areas for improvement lie. 

The 15-day Glasgow climate change summit brought together 40,000 government representatives, negotiators, businesses and citizens, with the aim of ramping up international efforts to tackle global warming. It was dubbed the most important conference of the parties since Paris in 2015. So, what are the major takeaways?

The end of the coal era

A deal aimed at keeping dangerous climate change at bay was struck at the conclusion of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Importantly, the Glasglow Climate Pact is the first ever climate deal that includes a mandate to cut the use of coal power, which is responsible for around 40% of annual CO2 emissions. While India and China successfully pushed for a language change to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, politicians remain positive that this will be a key turning point. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the “game-changing agreement” marks “the death knell for coal”. 

In reaction to the final agreement, Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International said: “It’s meek, it’s weak and the 1.5ºC goal is only just alive, but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters.”

More than 40 countries have pledged to phase out coal, including heavy coal users such as Poland, Ukraine and Vietnam. On top of this, at least 20 countries, including Italy, Canada, the US and Denmark, along with public financial institutions, promised to stop financing overseas fossil fuel industries by the end of 2022, instead diverting cash into clean energy. 

The EU’s climate chief Frans Timmermans said, “European wealth was built on coal, and if we don’t get rid of coal, European death will also be built on coal.”

Keeping 1.5ºC within reach

According to the IEA, the COP26 climate change pledges as of November 4th could help limit global warming to 1.8ºC. This marks the first time that governments agreed to targets that could hold the rise in global temperature to below 2ºC. The IEA also notes, however, that these pledges are meaningless unless they translate to clear policies that actually put greenhouse gas emissions into decline. 

Many leaders remain dissatisfied with the agreements reached. COP26 President Alok Sharma said, ”I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” while fighting back tears as the revised proposal was adopted. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterras added that the planet was “hanging by a thread” and “it is time to go into emergency mode”.

Tuvalu Minister Simon Kofe delivering a speech in knee-deep water for COP26
Tuvalu Minister Simone Kofe delivering a speech at COP26

If the 1.5ºC mark is breached, scientists say the Earth is likely to hit certain tipping points that could set off a chain of uncontrollable events with severe effects. Aminath Shauna, Environment Minister of the Maldives, said “the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us.” Tuvalu Minister Simon Kofe brought this point home by delivering a speech in knee-deep water to show that his low-lying Pacific island nation is on the front of climate change. “We cannot wait for speeches with the sea rising around us all the time,” he said. 

In order to keep the 1.5ºC target reachable, the Glasgow Climate Pact involved re-visiting plans to cut emissions next year. Countries have been asked to strengthen 2030 targets and resubmit nationally determined contributions that are more in line with the 1.5ºC goal by the end of 2022.

Financing climate change

The Glasgow Climate Pact emphasized the need for developed countries to increase the money they give to those already suffering the effects of climate change beyond the current $100 billion target. The deal urges rich nations to "at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation to developing countries." The host nation Scotland became one of the first countries to pledge funding (€1.2 million) for the Global South for the effects of climate change, hoping that other nations would follow.

In addition, 450 financial organisations, who between them control $130tn, agreed to back clean technology, such as renewable energy, and direct finance away from fossil-fuel burning industries. 42 world leaders, whose countries represent 70% of global GDP, agreed on a UK-led plan to speed up affordable and clean technology worldwide by 2030. The five goals have been called the “Glasgow breakthroughs” and deal with over half of global emissions. They aim to make clean power the most affordable and reliable source of power and zero-emission vehicles the new normal, globally by 2030. 

An integrated transition - energy, mobility, heating and technology

A scheme to cut 30% of current methane emissions by 2030 was agreed by more than 100 countries. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases and is currently responsible for around one-third of human-generated warming. As natural gas is made up mostly of methane, this deal is expected to accelerate the heating transition as we shift away from fossil fuel boilers to cleaner, more efficient heat pumps. 

In addition, a group of 100 national governments, cities, states and businesses signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets. Signatories include big polluters like India and Mexico, alongside automotive manufacturers Ford, General Motors, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, as well as companies with large fleets, such as LeasePlan, Uber and Sainsbury’s. Notably missing from the commitment are major car markets China, the United States and Germany, as well as the world’s top two carmakers, Toyota and Volkswagen. 

Electrification and integration of sectors requires smart technology

With the increased electrification and integration in the new energy era, the IEA highlighted the importance of maximizing the impact of clean energy technologies by increasing system flexibility. Further efforts must focus on bringing integration technologies to scale and supporting investment in smart grids to more intelligently monitor and manage the transport of electricity from all generation sources to meet the varying demands of end users.

International action

The IEA, the UK’s Office of Gas and Electricity (Ofgem), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the World Bank launched a global initiative at COP26 called the Regulatory Energy Transition Accelerator, or RETA. It aims to accelerate and improve the regulatory capacity necessary to decarbonize energy systems. They recognize that a stable and transparent regulatory environment helps to reduce the cost of capital and increase the affordability of the clean energy transition. With the switch to renewables, the group will ensure flexibility and capacity adequacy. 

Inger Anderson from the UN Environment Programme nicely summarized the conference: “the additional pledges, frankly, it’s the elephant giving birth to a mouse.” Steps have been made in the right direction, however, we need more united and steadfast commitments from corporations and governments to ensure that no countries or industries are left behind. Many gaps still remain - between scientific evidence and country's pledges, between climate commitments and action, between developed and emerging nations, and between companies embracing the energy transition and those stuck on outdated fossil fuels. We must urgently bridge these gaps and all take decisive action to cut emissions and ensure a healthy planet for future generations.

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