Over 40 Countries Pledge to End Use of Coal Power at COP26

The United States did not agree to stop coal development at home but promised to halt overseas funding of oil, gas and coal.

GLASGOW — More than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, in a deal announced Thursday at the United Nations climate summit that prompted Alok Sharma, the head of the conference, to proclaim “the end of coal is in sight.”

But several of the biggest coal consumers were notably absent from the accord, including China and India, which together burn roughly two-thirds of the world’s coal, as well as Australia, the world’s 11th-biggest user of coal and a major exporter.

The United States, which still generates about one-fifth of its electricity from coal, also did not sign the pledge.

The new pact includes 23 countries that for the first time have promised to stop building and issuing permits for new coal plants at home and to eventually shift away from using the fuel. Among them are five of the world’s top 20 power-generating countries: Poland, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam and Ukraine.

The decision by the United States to abstain appeared to be driven by American politics.

President Biden’s domestic agenda is split between two pieces of major legislation that have been pending on Capitol Hill and that hinge on the support of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Mr. Manchin’s state is rich in coal and gas, the senator has financial ties to the coal industry and he is sharply opposed to any policy that would harm fossil fuels.

Two administration officials in Glasgow said discussions with the British government over the pledge to end coal stretched into Wednesday night, with the United States arguing in favor of an exception for coal plants that have technology to capture and store carbon dioxide. (Only one such plant has been built in the United States to date, and it ceased operating this year.)

Ultimately, though, U.S. officials decided that signing the pledge could anger Mr. Manchin, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations. A spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House National Security Council said in a statement late Thursday that the coal pledge “includes specifics on permitting that is under legal and technical review” by the federal government and added that the administration’s considerations for joining “are based solely on that reasoning.”

The use of coal power in the United States peaked in 2007 and is fast declining, replaced by cheaper natural gas, wind and solar power.

Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, on Thursday. 
Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Coal is the single biggest source of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and ending its use is a major issue at the Glasgow summit.

Germany’s environment minister, Svenja Schulze, said ending coal is “essential” to keeping the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which many scientists say the planet will experience catastrophic effects from heat waves, droughts, wildfires and flooding. The planet has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius.

To meet that goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, wealthy countries would have to replace virtually all coal, oil and gas power plants with wind, solar or nuclear power by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency. And by 2040, all of the world’s remaining coal plants would have to be shuttered or fitted with technology to capture their carbon emissions and bury them underground, the agency said.

“In the near future we will have left behind all fossil fuels and live in a new and sustainable energy world based on renewable energy,” Ms. Schulze said.

Some environmental groups cautioned that the agreement was vague on key details, such as exactly when countries will end their use of the fuel. The statement only says that major economies commit to phasing out coal power “in the 2030s (or as soon as possible thereafter),” while the rest of the world would phase out coal by around the 2040s.

David Maurice Smith for The New York Times

That “offers a loophole,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “This is one more nail in the coffin of coal, but only one, and the coffin is not yet sealed,” Ms. Morgan added.

Underscoring the vagueness of the pledge, Anna Moskwa, Poland’s climate and environmental minister, said on Twitter Thursday that the deal allowed Poland to depart from coal by 2049. Poland currently gets 70 percent of its electricity from coal and has often resisted European proposals to shift more rapidly away from fossil fuels.

The Biden administration did join an agreement on Thursday to end financing for “unabated” oil, gas and coal in other countries by the end of next year. Unabated refers to power plants that burn fossil fuels and discharge the pollution directly into the air, without any attempt to capture the emissions.

That agreement is expected to significantly help steer public financing from multilateral development funders, such as the World Bank, away from fossil fuels. The 25 countries and entities in that pact, which include Italy, Canada and Denmark, have promised to prioritize support for low and zero-carbon energy like wind, solar and geothermal.

The decision to stop financing overseas fossil fuel development, paired with investments in green energy, is “really significant,” said Rachel Kyte of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“If we were just saying no to brown energy, then the political tensions between developing countries and developed countries would just escalate,” she said.

Republicans in the United States criticized the Biden administration’s pledge to end oil, gas and coal financing — noting the absence from the agreements of China, Japan and South Korea, some of the world’s biggest backers of foreign oil and gas projects.

“This agreement opens the door for China & Russia to fund the same production, but with their nonexistent environmental standards,” Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, wrote on Twitter. “Patting yourself on the back and pretending to make a difference does nothing if it only leads to higher global emissions.”

Others noted the move could easily be reversed by a future administration.

“If there’s no law that would lock in a new administration in, I don’t know how the U.S. would be bound to uphold it,” said George David Banks, who served as former President Donald J. Trump’s international energy adviser.

Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The promise to end coal comes as coal consumption is making a resurgence globally after years of steady decline. This year, coal consumption worldwide is expected to grow by 5.7 percent as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic and is now just below its peak set in 2014, according to new data published Thursday by the Global Carbon Project. China’s government recently ordered coal companies to increase their mining output to manage an electricity shortage that has led to rolling blackouts nationwide.

The World Coal Association did not respond to a request for comment about the new announcement but earlier this week said efforts to eliminate coal ignored the fact that coal “remains a critical to energy supply in 80 countries and the livelihood of more than 790 million people who have no access to reliable and affordable power.”

Some of those countries signed the pledge. Ukraine, the third biggest consumer of coal in Europe, said Wednesday that it would aim to end coal use by 2035. Chile, which has previously pledged to close all of its remaining coal plants by 2040, said it would speed up its timeline.

The pledge would require some nations to make major changes. Vietnam, for example, would have to significantly revise recent plans to double its coal capacity by 2030.

Developing countries are likely to require outside financial help to wean themselves off coal, which has long been prized as a cheap source of energy for factories and homes. Indonesia, which signed the pledge, had earlier said it could phase out its coal-fired power plants by 2040 but only if it gets financial aid. The country is the world’s eighth-largest emitter and gets roughly two-thirds of its electricity from coal.

At the Glasgow summit, financiers and development banks have so far pledged roughly $20 billion to help developing countries transition away from coal, including $8.5 billion from the United States and several European governments to help coal-reliant South Africa shift to cleaner energy. The Asian Development Bank also launched a new fund that will buy coal power plants in Asia in order to shut them early, although some critics have questioned how effective that plan will be.

One question left unanswered in the coal pledge is whether countries may turn instead to natural gas to meet their energy needs. Gas produces about half the carbon dioxide as coal when burned for fuel but is still a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.