Catastrophic Climate Change Cannot Be Stopped If We Keep Using Coal

At the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, diplomats put down on paper, for the first time, the collective need to accelerate phasing out coal and fossil fuels subsidies to meet their climate goals in a draft statement released Wednesday.

Countries can either keep using coal at current levels or limit future warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target of the Paris climate agreement. It’s impossible to do both. But this scientific reality has been an elephant in the room of high-level international climate negotiations for years — until now.

“It’s significant,” Helen Mountford, a vice president at World Resources Institute, told reporters. “We’ve never had a text like that before.”

Still, this new declaration isn’t final, has no timeline or other details, and comes along with some murky country-specific pledges. This incongruity on coal captures the central tension playing out at the high-profile climate talks in Glasgow: the glaring gaps between what countries must do to halt the worsening climate crisis, what countries say they will do in the future, and what they are actually doing now.

“We’ll see if that text sticks,” Mountford later said. “We’re hoping it will. It’s a really important and concrete action that countries can take to actually deliver on their commitments.”

Outside the climate negotiations, protesters pushed for the language to stay in. According to the Washington Post, they chanted: “‘Fossil fuels’ on paper now” and “Keep it in the text.”

Even United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed frustration with the negotiations on Thursday, saying that country-level “promises ring hollow when the fossil fuel industry still receives trillions in subsidies, as measured by the IMF. Or when countries are still building coal plants.”

With current climate policies in place, the world is on track to warm more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to preindustrial levels. Even the most up-to-date tallies of current pledges for future climate action put the world on track to heat up 1.8 degrees Celsius. This means that even if all the countries actually deliver on their most ambitious promises — a big if — we’ll still overshoot the key Paris goal by 0.3 degrees. This may seem like a minor difference, but the science is abundantly clear that every tenth of a degree is disastrous for humanity: more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires; more sea level rise; and, ultimately, more suffering.

The science is also clear that coal is just awful for the climate. Coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source, responsible for about 40% of carbon emissions tied to global fossil fuel use.

That’s why a growing number of officials are saying that ditching coal is among the most important steps to take for tackling climate change. Just last week, for example, Canadian environment and climate change minister Steven Guilbeault said in Glasgow: “Ending emissions of coal power is one of the single most important steps we must take to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement and the 1.5 degree target.”