Several countries pledge to phase out heavily polluting coal — but U.S and China aren't among them

In the fight to curb climate change, several major coal-using nations announced steps Thursday to wean themselves — at times slowly — off of the heavily polluting fossil fuel.

U.S., China, India and Japan still haven't set a date for ending their dependence on coal

Exhaust gases rise from the chimney of a coal power plant in Germany. While parts of the world, including Canada, are phasing out coal, demand continues to grow and prices are rising. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

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In the fight to curb climate change, several major coal-using nations announced steps Thursday to wean themselves — at times slowly — off of the heavily polluting fossil fuel.

The pledges to phase out coal come on top of other promises made at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, that the head of an international energy organization said trimmed a few tenths of a degree from projections of future warming. But outside experts termed that comment — only in a tweet, not a rigourous report — "optimistic."

Optimism also abounded in relation to the promises on coal, which has the dirtiest carbon footprint of the major fuels and is a significant source of planet-warming emissions.

"Today, I think we can say that the end of coal is in sight," said Alok Sharma, who is chairing the conference of nearly 200 nations, known as COP26. The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

But that vision is obscured in smoke, critics say, because several major economies still have not set a date for ending their dependence on the fuel, including the United States, China, India and Japan.

Outside the venue where negotiators were meeting Thursday, protestors clad as animated characters blasted Japan's continued coal use.

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What nations have promised varies. Some have pledged to quit coal completely at some future time, while others say they'll stop building new plants, and even more, including China, are talking about just stopping financing of new coal plants abroad.

The British government said pledges of new or earlier deadlines for ending coal use came from countries including Poland, Ukraine, Vietnam and Chile. Further details about which countries were doing what were to be announced later in the day.

Canada to stop financing fossil fuel projects abroad

Meanwhile, the United States, Canada, Denmark and several other nations signed a pledge to "prioritize" funding clean energy over fossil fuel projects abroad.

While not completely ruling out financial support for coal-fired power plants, the countries said they would refrain from any "new direct public support" for coal except in limited circumstances.

That move was seen as a significant step by environmental campaigners, who said that it could push international lenders to stop providing loans for new fossil fuel projects.

Denmark announced a $15.6 million US contribution for the coal phase-out, including money for efforts to purchase and decommission coal power plants and invest in new energy sources.

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U.K. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng called the agreements a "milestone moment in our global efforts to tackle climate change." But the opposition Labour Party's business spokesman, Ed Miliband, said there were "glaring gaps," such as the lack of commitment from large emitters to stop increasing coal domestically.

Coal emissions spiked in 2021

And despite the talk, coal emissions increased dramatically in 2021, not just from pandemic-struck 2020 levels, but above pre-pandemic 2019 levels, according to a new analysis by scientists at Global Carbon Project, which tracks annual carbon pollution. The world spewed 14.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from coal burning, 5.7 per cent more than last year, the analysis said.

That was mostly spurred by a dramatic increase in pollution from coal burning in China, which hit a new peak of coal emissions this year of 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than half the globe's coal emissions, the report said.

Miliband also noted that there were no new commitments on phasing out of oil and gas, the other major fossil fuels.

Still, experts said the announcement and others made so far at the summit showed the growing momentum to ditch coal.

"Today's commitments will help to shift whole continents on their journey to phase out coal," said Dave Jones of the energy think-tank Ember.

Poland is the second-biggest user of coal in Europe after Germany, which is set to phase it out as early as 2030. While the Polish government had previously agreed to end coal use by 2049, the new pledge would bring this deadline forward by at least a decade.

"Finally the Polish government has accepted what is a no-brainer: The time of coal has ended," said Joanna Flisowska, a climate expert with Greenpeace Poland, while noting that this was "only the first step."

Ukraine, the third-biggest coal consumer in Europe, is also bringing forward its coal deadline, from 2050 to 2035.

"The progress on coal being shown at COP26 demonstrates that the conditions are ripe for a global coal exit," said Leo Roberts, a senior researcher at the environmental think tank E3G.

"We now need to see the incoming massive scale-up in clean energy finance made available quickly to ensure all countries can confidently move from coal to clean."

But some environmental activists said the commitments didn't go far enough.

"Emissions from oil and gas already far outstrip coal and are booming, while coal is already entering a terminal decline," said Murray Worthy of the campaign group Global Witness. "This is a small step forwards when what was needed was a giant leap."

The agreements on coal are not part of the formal negotiations at the UN talks in Glasgow. But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose country is hosting the conference, had said he wanted to see deals on coal, cars, trees and cash.

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