Amendments to agreements on Coal use at COP 26

The COP 26 climate summit has been concluded with mixed results. One of these, a deal on ending coal use worldwide, faced a dramatic turn on the final day of the summit.

Due to conclude on Friday 12th November, talks at the COP 26 conference continued into Saturday 13th. One of the specific clauses to be discussed on this final, extra, day of the summit was related to coal use. The clause had been game-changing, aiming to speed up the removal of coal from those power plants worldwide that do not make use of carbon capture technologies. Under the original clause, countries had agreed to “phase-out” coal use, a highly significant commitment considering the fact that historically, no agreements have been made to scale down fossil fuel use since the Kyoto summit in 1997.

However, on Saturday the 13th, Chinese and Indian delegates put forward amendments to the text, stating that they wished the language to be changed from aims to “phase-out” coal, to “phase-down” coal, suggesting the continuation of coal use in the short-term future at least.

For Alok Sharma, the president of the COP 26 summit, such amendments to the text were devastating. Coal is the most polluting of fossil fuels, and research has made it very clear that its continued use will make it impossible to remain within targets of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming compared to pre-industrial levels. In fact, at the very least, 40% of the world’s coal-powered plants must be shut down by 2030 if the target is to be met. For Sharma, “consigning coal to history” had been a personal goal and one that has been at the center of numerous speeches he had given at the summit.

However, accepting the amendments advocated for by Indian and Chinese delegates would ensure that some kind of commitment to coal reductions would remain in place. Disagreeing had the potential to see the countries leave the agreement, weakening its significance and potentially encouraging other nations to do the same. Concerned that the entire deal would be lost, Sharma agreed to the amendments proposed.

The resulting agreement based around a “phase-down” of coal, though somewhat removed from its original draft, is nevertheless influential. At past climate conferences, there have not been any agreements made on stopping coal use, and it is well known that much of climate negotiation comes down to compromise. Therefore, while the confirmed agreement is not perfect, it marks a step in the right direction towards moving away from coal as a fuel.

What is upsetting, is that the original deal on phasing out coal had given no specific dates or targets other than “accelerating efforts towards the phaseout of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. The new deal, then, marks an even more ambiguous pledge by countries to lessen their coal use.

Such limitations are well recognised by those countries most at risk from climate change, including low-lying island states and less-developed nations. Indeed, the representative of Tuvalu noted the importance of the clause for their nation, highlighting that Tuvalu will soon be flooded if action to reduce carbon emissions is not taken on a large scale. Sharma offered a direct apology to these states after the amendments had been agreed, explaining that he was “deeply sorry” but underlining that it was “vital that we protect this package” and accept a compromise.

While it remains to be seen to what extent countries will comply with the new coal “phase-down” agreement, Sharma will remain COP president for the rest of the year until the following COP conference to be held in Egypt. For him, more work lies in implementing a low-carbon policy within the United Kingdom to ensure that the nation acts as a role model for the agreements that have been decided on. In relation to coal use, these changes need to come quickly, or the 1.5-degree target will soon be very out of reach.


Tamara Moule