Quitting coal-fired power is the “single most important” step the world must take as it gears up for a crucial set of UN climate talks taking place in six months’ time, an energy expert has said.
At the start of November, world leaders are due to meet in Glasgow for Cop26, a climate summit that will be key for getting countries on track for the global aspiration of limiting temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
“I think it is for me the single most important issue today,” he told The Independent.
He pointed to a recent analysis by the IEA which found that CO2 emissions are set for their second-largest annual increase in history this year as the world increasingly turns to coal-fired power in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I was disappointed that despite all the rhetoric and expectations that the world would come out of Covid in a more sustainable manner, we see that the economic recovery colour is brown, not green,” he said.
“Coal plants are today responsible for about one-third of all emissions and it is therefore important to do two things when it comes to coal,” said Dr Birol. “One, to not build new coal plants and second – maybe more critically – to come up with a plan for dealing with existing coal plants, especially in Asia.”
He added that richer nations needed to come up with more incentives to encourage lower-income countries to shut down their existing coal power plants.
“In Europe and the US, we have coal plants but they are on average about 40 to 43 years old, which is close to the retirement age of about 45 years. But in Asia, the average age is about 11 years old – they are far from retirement,” he said.
“How are we going to provide incentives for early retirement for those coal plants, especially in countries with lower income levels? For me, this is a burning question.”
The UK, along with Canada, is leading a global effort to try to get countries and businesses to commit to phasing out the use of coal-fired power ahead of Cop26.
However, a report published earlier this month by the NGO Reclaim Finance said the initiative, known as the Powering Past Coal Alliance, was compromised by serious loopholes – rendering it “not fit for purpose”.
In addition to phasing out coal, countries must also “drastically” scale back on oil and fossil gas production if the planet is to meet its climate goals, Dr Birol added.
“If the world is serious about reaching its net-zero target, we need to see the use of all fossil fuels going down drastically – or we need to find new technologies to use them in a carbon-free manner,” he said.
He added that he hoped to see more countries coming forward with short-term emissions goals in the run-up to the conference.
“We have to see countries who have not yet come up with pledges to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050 come forward with this commitment,” he said.
“But more importantly, countries who have made that pledge must explain how they are going to halve their emissions this decade and the critical energy policies they are going to put in place to make those reductions happen.”
Despite the ongoing need for more progress, he remains optimistic that the UK-led conference could prove a historic moment in the fight against the climate crisis, he added.
“Two things make me optimistic,” said Dr Birol. “Firstly, I was very impressed with the recent climate leaders summit, which boosted international climate momentum.
“And, secondly, I recently had a long and comprehensive meeting with Alok Sharma – [the UK minister appointed Cop26 president] – and his plans and ambitions made me believe that the UK can pull off an excellent outcome for the world from Cop26, and that Glasgow will go in the history books alongside Paris.”