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UK sees no deal coming to eliminate coal at UN climate summit

The United Nations climate talks haven’t even started and host-nation UK is already conceding that a key goal – a deal to end coal burning – is off the table.

“It will be hard to consign coal to history at Glasgow,” Barbara Woodward, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview Wednesday, a day before she travels to Scotland for the COP26 climate conference that begins Sunday. “We’ve got to give up coal and some of the plans do not foresee that.”

Conference president Alok Sharma has set a target for the summit to “consign coal to history” in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. That’s looking unlikely, with Group of 20 diplomats now narrowing in on a more modest plan to stop governments funding foreign coal-fired power plants, according to people familiar with the situation.

“It’s like those New Year’s resolutions — they’re all a bit shiny. But as the year comes into focus you sort of face reality,” she said. “We haven’t got the commitments we need yet.”

Woodward singled out for criticism Australia, the world’s second-biggest coal exporter. While the country has joined the coalition of more than 100 nations pledging to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, Woodward said the details of its plan are problematic.

Australia “put out their plan but it does not envisage abandoning fossil fuel or coal,” she said.

Meanwhile, China has ordered coal miners to boost output by about 100-million tons in the fourth quarter, comparable to about a year’s production from commodities giant Glencore.

For comparison, South Africa is setting a better example for moving away from coal without leading to significant economic disruptions, she said. The country gets about 75% of its power from the fuel, according to BloombergNEF, and has outlined plans to accelerate development of clean energy.

The global energy crisis is highlighting the challenge of the green energy transition. As nations emerge from the pandemic, increased economic activity is driving up demand for electricity and the fuels that produce it. That’s led to shortages of natural gas and increased calls for coal around the world as utilities face pressure to keep lights on and factories running.

But Woodward said this moment will be short-lived compared to the long-term trends driving the world to embrace clean energy.

“We have to see this, and plan for this, as a blip in the overall strategy,” she said. “It’s definitely a problem, we definitely have to deal with it. But I don’t think it’s a reversal.”

And the big picture for the COP conference remains positive. Woodward estimated a 60% to 70% chance that the policies coming out of Glasgow will keep climate negotiators’ primary goal in reach — limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point that’s seen as critical to avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

“I’m more than optimistic,” she said. “We have gotten to a point where climate change is more or less top of pretty much every global leader’s agenda.”