What if COP26 was all about consigning fossil fuels to history?

Energy transition

Back in May, UK COP26 president Alok Sharma called on all countries to abandon coal power and make this year’s UN climate talks the moment the world “consigns coal to history”. Given the urgency for bold climate action, next month’s Climate Summit must move the World to another level where all fossil fuels become history.

The IPCC’s eye opening ‘Code Red’ report, launched while Europe was experiencing climate change impacts in the form of extreme weather events and fires, is loud and clear: “Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C would be beyond reach”. ​​It also states that the scale of the climate crisis can still be limited if strong and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, prominently carbon dioxide and methane, happen quickly. 


Phasing out global greenhouse gas emissions requires a global phase out of fossil fuels. However, the energy supply issue is not directly addressed within the existing texts, UN processes and negotiations. Governments, financial institutions, companies and regional authorities need to step up to make fossil fuels history, the new reality for a climate-safe, just and fair World.

The only place where energy supply is referred to in the Paris Agreement is the Article 2.1c, which focuses on aligning financial flows, shifting money from fossil fuel subsidies to climate finance. Although this implies governments need to stop allocating money for fossil fuels, it does not openly mandate any action on the actual exploitation, imports and consumption of fossil fuel resources. Since the signing of the Paris Agreement, institutional fossil fuel phase out pledges accelerated, thanks to massive push from the civil society on governments and financial institutions. However, it is not happening at the necessary pace to decarbonize by mid-century. In fact, many net-zero pledges are out there yet it is unclear how to get there: what is key is how rapid the emissions will be cut between now and then – hence the need to have realistic short-term promises. 

No new coal and gas infrastructure should be built after 2021, and all OECD countries must phase out existing coal plants by 2030. As the UN Secretary General António Guterres reiterates, countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a trajectory that leads us to net-zero in 2050.

After multiple international summits throughout the year, all eyes are now on the COP26 which will take place in Glasgow in less than a month and where leaders will meet after more than a year with limited occasions for in person negotiations. The UK presidency is doing a lot of behind the scenes work to break the ice and drum up new domestic pledges and international commitments ahead of the climate summit on its priority issues.

International pledges

Governments are clearly stepping up to stop construction of new coal plants which sets the scene nicely for the G20 summit, right before the COP26. During the UN General Assembly last month, China pledged to stop building new coal plants abroad. This is a significant step signaling the end of a coal era in especially African and SouthEast Asian countries, as well as the Western Balkans and Turkey, due to China being the main driver of new coal projects in these countries. 

Then the launch of the No New Coal Power Compact followed as an initiative by a group of countries including Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Montenegro, Sri Lanka and the UK. The founding governments call upon all other states to join the Compact ahead of the negotiations in Glasgow to help deliver on the summit’s ambitious goal to “consign coal power to history”.

Shifting finances

While countries can make their own coal phaseout commitments, what can be even more transformational is to make collective efforts to transform global financial flows by removing public funds out of fossil fuels across the entire value chain (extraction, transport, distribution, and power generation) – including through export credit agencies. A statement launched in September and signed by over 200 civil society organisations from all over the world aims at pressuring governments in the run up to the COP to do exactly that. 

This would have huge impacts on energy systems around the world, especially given fossil fuels are currently subsidised by enormous sums. Between 2017 and 2019, G7 nations spent USD 86 billion in public finance for fossil fuels, despite their pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025. Moreover, G20 has also consistently committed to end fossil fuel subsidies every year since 2009, yet no concrete action followed the commitment. Making this decision would not only be the engine behind rapid greenhouse gas emission reductions, but would also free up significant resources to support developing countries to adapt to climate change and to secure clean energy access and just transitions.

Going beyond coal is now a no-brainer given all the currents against it. However, in order for the energy transition to lead to a just and fair societal transformation, the coal phase-outs should be well-planned where countries ensure public participation by all segments of the society at local, regional and national levels. Moreover, this should not motivate governments and financial institutions to jump on the next fossil fuel source down the road and stumble over the same stone again. A very positive recent development is the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) led by Denmark and Costa Rica. The Alliance aims to “leverage momentum from first movers on oil and gas phase-out and encourage others to take action, by providing a home for those new commitments”. COP26 will be a key moment for countries to jump on the BOGA train in order to accelerate momentum.

The EU’s role

It is encouraging to see the EU on board, starting the year by calling for an immediate end to international public finance for coal in the Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on Climate and Energy Diplomacy. Just recently, in the EU’s COP26 Climate Finance Council Conclusions, Finance Ministers stressed the need to phase out ‘environmentally harmful fossil fuel subsidies’ and support developing countries in their efforts.

The UK Presidency and allies are working hard to garner support from progressive leaders around the world. Phasing out public finance for fossil fuels should not stop at coal, but cover all fossils including fossil gas. EU Member States should now meet the standard set by the EIB and follow up with their own phaseout commitments. 

The last milestone before the COP is the European hosted G20. The Italian presidency has a unique opportunity to finally make the league of nations deliver on the commitment to phase out fossil fuels, with a clear timeline and roadmap. 

A climate-safe World needs immediate and bold action to keep all fossil fuels in the ground. Stars are aligned for this year’s UN Climate talks for the COP26 to be a historic milestone to consigne fossil fuels to history. 


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