What’s the real difference between “phase out” and “phase down”? Let’s read the explanation by Reuters Asia Commodities Columnist Clyde Russell.
This semantic exercise is receiving considerable attention in the wake of a compromise on coal reached at the weekend at the conclusion of the U.N. climate talks in Glasgow.
For those committed to ending the role of the polluting fuel in the global energy system, the change from “phase out” to “phase down” weakens the commitment to getting rid of coal.
For those who want to continue using coal, the change in language represents what Matt Canavan, a pro-coal former resources minister for Australia’s conservative government, said on domestic television on Monday was a “green light” for ongoing coal mine developments, exports and new power plants.
China and India, the two biggest producers, consumers and importers of coal, sparked the last-minute drama at the COP26 talks in the Scottish city by forcing a compromise that led from “phase out” to be changed to “phase down.”
The bigger question is whether the shift to what may be viewed as a softer commitment to end coal’s use will actually result in any change in the behaviour by China and India.
Will those two countries seek to prolong their dependence on coal for longer than they have publicly stated because of the change from “out” to “down”?
And even if they do, will they be able to as the rest of the world is likely to implement a global carbon tax adjustment system long before both China and India completely stop using coal to generate electricity?
For global climate goals to be met, what China and India actually do with coal is likely to prove far more important than the diplomatic word games played at the COP26 summit.
And it’s here that the outlook is somewhat mixed, as China and India, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, still have massive amounts of coal-fired power under construction and in the pipeline.
Coal’s big three
Of the global total of 184.5 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power under construction, the three Asian countries are building 77.5%, with China leading the way at 96.7 GW, according to data from the Global Energy Monitor.
For coal-fired power plants that are announced, pre-permit or are permitted, the three are 68.2% of the total of 296.7 GW, with China again dominating with 163.3 GW.
While there are considerable doubts as to whether coal plants in the announced, pre-permit and permitted stages will proceed, the units currently under construction represent an 8.9% expansion of the existing global fleet of operating units.
These plants will be designed to operate for at least 40 years, meaning that for coal to exit the energy system earlier, the generators currently being built would have to be closed early.
The trajectory for coal outside of the three main Asian producers and consumers is clearer, with firm commitments to end its use in the other major importing countries, such as Japan, South Korea and parts of Europe.
The United States, the third-largest consumer of coal, is also likely to transition away from the fuel, partly because of stronger climate policies under President Joe Biden, but also because the alternatives, such as natural gas and renewables, are cheaper and easier to finance.
What is becoming apparent is that the last countries to exit coal will be those with abundant domestic reserves and high energy demand profiles, and that basically means China, India and Indonesia.
The seaborne market for coal will gradually disappear as importers such as Japan and South Korea close plants.
It’s likely that China and India will also eventually be able to source all their coal needs from domestic resources, thereby limiting their need to import fuel.
This is the reality facing the top coal exporters such as Indonesia, Australia, Russia, South Africa and the United States.
Demand for the fuel is currently robust due to energy shortages in China, which were largely self-inflicted, and in India, mainly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic affecting domestic output.
However, it’s unlikely that strong demand for seaborne coal will be an ongoing factor over the long term, especially if importing countries do actually meet their climate change targets.
Ultimately, those in favour of “phase out” for coal will likely get what they want, but not soon enough. Those who prefer “phase down” will also get what they want, but the risk is the process goes far faster than they expect.
#HappeningNow:We're at the U.N. Headquarters this morning. We’ve had more than enough nonsense from politicians and global conferences that just greenwash and delay. Unless drastic climate action is taken now, world leaders are complicit in crimes against humanity. #COP26Failure pic.twitter.com/AmZZ667jWH
— Extinction Rebellion NYC 🌎 (@XR_NYC) November 15, 2021
‘Betrayal of people, planet’: World reacts to COP26 climate pact
Let’s read mixed reactions to Glasgow Climate Pact collected by Al Jazeera. Media say that UN, US, China welcome deal and activists denounce more ‘blah blah blah’ from two weeks of talks.
Global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, have ended with an agreement that the United Nations called both an “important step” and a “compromise”, but one that some activists dismissed as a “betrayal of the planet and the people”.
The pact, approved by nearly 200 nations on Saturday, won applause for keeping alive the hope of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), but disappointed many with a last-minute change that watered down crucial language about coal.
The revision, promoted by India and backed by China, called for nations to “phase down” rather than “phase out” use of the dirtiest fossil fuel.
The pact also did little to assuage vulnerable countries’ concerns about long-promised financing from rich nations.
Following resistance from the United States and the European Union, the text omitted any reference to a specific finance facility for the “loss and damage” that climate change has already caused in the developing world. Instead, it promised future “dialogue” on the issue.
“The approved texts are a compromise,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today.”
And while the deal proposes to take important steps, it “is not enough,” he said. “It’s time to go into emergency mode.”
US climate envoy John Kerry welcomed the agreement, saying good compromises leave everyone slightly unsatisfied.
“We emerge from Glasgow having dramatically raised the world’s ambition to solve this challenge in this decade and beyond,” he said, adding: “We are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaner air, safer water and a healthier planet.”
Chinese negotiator Zhao Yingmin echoed that sentiment.
“I think our biggest success is to finalize the rulebook,” Zhao told reporters. “Now we can start implementing it and delivering it on our achieved consensus.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the COP26 talks, also remained relatively upbeat.
“There’s still a long, long way to go before we can say we’ve dealt with climate change, but the great news is, together, the world has made some important breakthroughs,” he said late on Saturday.
“We’ve kept alive the hope of restricting the growth in temperatures to 1.5 degrees, and we’ve made huge progress on coal, cars, cash and trees. For the first time ever, we’ve got over 190 countries all agreeing to sound the death knell for coal power. And tonight, the developed world has finally acknowledged the need to help poor and vulnerable nations to deal with the loss and damage that’s already being caused by climate change.”
The EU also welcomed the agreement, saying it gave “us a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said delegates made progress on commitments to cut back on dangerous emissions, as well as pledges to help developing and vulnerable countries.
“But there will be no time to relax: there is still hard work ahead,” she added.
Meanwhile, the representative from Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, avoided questions, saying all parties were “happy” with the climate pact.
“We’re good, we’re good,” said Ayman M Shasly, the Saudi representative. “The decision has been adopted. No comment. Everybody’s happy. All parties are happy with the decision so we’re good.”
Lee White, Gabonese Environment Minister and the chair of African negotiators, said the Africa team got “60 percent of what we hoped”.
“We would’ve liked to have made more progress on dependable finance for adaptation,” he said. “But we definitely got a very strong moral engagement from the EU and the US.”
Small island nations, however, said the “incremental progress” at Glasgow was not enough.
“What is balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time,” said Aminath Shauna, environment minister for the low-lying Indian Ocean island nation. “It will be too late for the Maldives… We recognise the foundations that this outcome provides, but it does not bring hope to our hearts. It serves as yet another conversation where we put our homes on the line, while those who have other options decide how quickly they want to act to save those who don’t.”
Saleemul Hug, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, was more blunt.
“As far as I am concerned, it is a failure,” he said.
“(I’ve) come here with a single agenda which is to help the poorest people on the planet who are already suffering from the impacts of human-induced climate change. And we needed a Glasgow facility on loss and damage finance here. 138 developing countries put language in the text yesterday. It got removed overnight. It’s not there any more. It has been replaced by an offer for a dialogue … absolutely disappointing and totally unacceptable.”
Other activists echoed the criticism.
Prominent environmental activist Greta Thunberg said the talks had achieved nothing but “blah blah blah”.
“The real work continues outside these halls,” the figurehead of the Fridays for Future movement posted on Twitter. “And we will never give up, ever.”
Asad Rehman, campaigner at War on Want, a group working to end global poverty, described the deal as a “betrayal of people and the planet”.
“It’s a betrayal of the science, it’s a betrayal of the realities of the climate impacts that are happening and devastating people’s lives and livelihoods,” he said. “The only people celebrating this outcome are the hundreds of lobbyists from the oil and gas industry, those whose vested interests basically say, we can’t see any change, we can’t move away from the fossil fuel addiction of our economy.”
UAE Press: COP26, a draw in the fight for climate change
A UAE newspaper has said that the Glasgow Climate Pact becomes the first deal on climate change to specifically reduce the use of coal, a concession that allowed for an agreement by deciding to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’ its use. WAM collected a few media reactions to the COP26 pact. Let’s check them.
In an editorial on November 15, Gulf News said, “Going into the Glasgow summit, the hope was that all parties could reach a comprehensive deal to limit the warming of our planet to just 1.5° C.”
“With the UAE set to host COP28 in two years’ time, the groundwork begins now on building consensus that the damage being inflicted on our planet is stopped, and that the worse effects of climate change are halted outright if not significantly reversed,” the paper said.
COP26 delegates only managed to sign off on a joint plan of action after a commitment to phase out coal that was included in earlier negotiation drafts was watered down, leaving COP26 President Alok Sharma to say he was “deeply sorry” for how events had unfolded.
The issue of coal and its significance for nations such as China and the US that burn it for energy production, and others such as India where it is a cornerstone powering domestic growth, was always going to be difficult. The Glasgow pact is at least a start, one where there has finally been movement on coal. COP28 can at least begin to accelerate that momentum now that coal has started to shift.
It continued, “Since the Paris Agreement six years ago, providing a financial incentive to poorer nations to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, adapt renewable energies, change their environmental outlook and subsidise their development, is part and parcel of the fight for that 1.5 degree limit.
“Financing remains an issue, with just half of the money promised at Paris paid. Developing nations want to see more and more urgently. The historical reality is that much of the damage done to our environment began with developed nations’ exploitation of fossil fuels, and there is a price to be paid for asking developing nations now to turn from those carbon-based fuels.”
“The fight for 1.5° C was not won in Glasgow, it was at best a draw. There is a new fixture now at COP28, and we all cannot afford to lose,” concluded the Dubai-based daily.
“A reminder after the disappointment at #COP26 : the people in power don’t need conferences, treaties or agreements to start taking real climate action. They can start today.
When enough people come together, then change will come and we can achieve almost anything. So instead of looking for hope – start creating it. Now the real work begins, and we will never give up, ever.”
Greenhouse gas emissions not only cause global temperatures and climate change to rise. They also increase the acidity of the environment in water bodies – the so-called acidification of the oceans. Read the explanation of this process here.