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A last minute demand by China and India, the world’s No. 1 and No. 3 emitters of carbon dioxide, to phase down — rather than phase out — coal, provided a dramatic finish to last week’s United Nations’ COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Japan, the world’s fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide, will also continue to rely on coal. For Asia’s major economies and main polluters, promises to further reduce emissions by phasing out coal run straight into domestic political roadblocks and social realities that may result in equally tense negotiations at next year’s COP27 summit in Egypt.

All three countries signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, which committed nations to cap global warming at 2 degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees, above pre-industrial levels. To reach that goal, the world needs to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century and roughly halve emissions by 2030. Many countries have agreed to phase out coal, which the United Nations has called for, in order to reach that goal.

But China and India demanded as far back as the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit that they not be held to the same emissions reduction targets as developed countries and that the latter provide developing countries like themselves with sufficient financial and technological aid for climate change adaptation and mitigation. When the world meets again at COP27, pressure on all three countries to further reduce coal usage as well as increased funding to help them meet that goal is likely to be a point of major debate once again. Here are the emissions reduction plans of all three countries and their reasons for sticking with coal.

Japan

Japan has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 46% by 2030 compared to 2013 levels and to being carbon neutral by 2050. In October, just before COP26 began, the government approved its 2030 energy mix plan, which calls for renewable energy to account for 36%-38% of electricity generation, up from 18% in 2019.

But the plan drew domestic and international criticism from renewable energy advocates over its goals for nuclear power — making up 20% to 22% of the mix — and especially the continued use of coal, which is projected to supply 19% of the country’s electricity by 2030.

At present, Japan has 150 coal-fired plants in operation. With the slow restart of nuclear power plants (only 10 of the 36 commercial reactors not being scrapped were officially in operation as of September), and continued concerns over the stability and price of renewable energy, Japan will continue to press forward with coal.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Wednesday during a briefing that while Japan would work to reduce its use of coal-fired power as much as possible, the COP26 plan to phase down coal was in line with the government’s own policy. Japan, along with the U.S. and China, refused to join about 40 nations in signing an agreement for advanced economies to end the use of coal-fired plants in the 2030s, and the rest of the world to do so by the 2040s.

People dressed as Pikachu protest against the funding of coal by Japan, near the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) venue in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 4. | REUTERS
People dressed as Pikachu protest against the funding of coal by Japan, near the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) venue in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 4. | REUTERS

Adopting the same rationale as China and India, Matsuno said each country’s energy situation is different, and Japan wanted to use a diverse range of energy sources rather than overly rely on one. Japan’s plan, though, is to gradually replace coal with ammonia, which does not emit carbon dioxide when burned, as well as hydrogen.

“Japan, through the Asia Energy Transition Initiative, will develop leading projects worth $100 million to transform fossil fuel-fired thermal power into zero-emission thermal power such as ammonia and hydrogen,” prime minister Fumio Kishida announced to COP26 delegates on Nov. 2.

But climate experts note that ammonia is produced by burning coal and natural gas, and warn that it is an expensive process.

“Maintaining coal-fired power plants for the sake of hydrogen/ammonia co-firing not only fails to reduce emissions in real terms, but also poses technical challenges and lacks economic rationality,” said Mie Asaoka, president of Kiko Network.

China

China’s emission reduction plan calls for having its carbon dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In addition, China will seek to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65%, compared to 2005, and to increase its share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to about 25%, also by 2030. With regards to renewable energy, China has pledged to provide total installed capacity of wind and solar power to 1200 gigawatts, roughly the equivalent of 1,200 nuclear power plants.

In April, President Xi Jinping said at a leaders climate summit that China would strictly control coal generation until 2025 and then start to gradually phase it out. Earlier this month, China announced it was aiming for a 1.8% reduction in coal use at power plants over the next five years.

A September report by the International Energy Agency said the energy sector accounts for 90% of China’s greenhouse gas emissions. Coal provides over 60% of the country’s electric power generation, as it’s the most easily accessible and convenient source of energy for the nation of 1.4 billion people.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes China continues to invest heavily in solar power and that the nation’s solar photovoltaic additions have outpaced all other countries. But Beijing justifies its coal use by saying that, as a developing country, its growing energy demand will keep rising and that because the country is rich in coal and poor in oil and gas, a coal-dominated energy mix is unlikely to change in the short term.

For these reasons, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended the decision to push the Glasgow summit to agree to scale down coal instead of phasing it out.

“In many developing countries, not everyone has access to electricity, and energy supply is not adequate. Before asking all countries to stop using coal, consideration should be given to the energy shortfall in these countries to ensure their energy security,” Zhao said at a news conference Monday.

China appears somewhat more willing to consider ways to lower emissions of another greenhouse gas: methane. As a warming agent, methane is more than 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide once it reaches the atmosphere, although only for the first two decades or so, after which it weakens. But it remains a problem for near-term global warming.

At COP26, over 100 countries including the U.S. and Japan, but not China and India, signed a pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade. If realized, this pledge would reduce global warming by at least 0.2 degree by 2050. But the U.S. and China also agreed to work together on tackling global warming, and this includes the creation of a Chinese national plan to control and reduce methane emissions before COP27.

“The U.S. and China managed their differences and demonstrated the need for cooperation. But the climate crisis demands the global community do more than what Beijing and Washington were able to agree upon,” said Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser with Greenpeace East Asia.

Workers prepare to load coal onto a truck at the Jharia coalfield in Dhanbad in India's Jharkhand state on Oct. 14. | AFP-JIJI
Workers prepare to load coal onto a truck at the Jharia coalfield in Dhanbad in India’s Jharkhand state on Oct. 14. | AFP-JIJI

India

India is the world’s third-largest carbon emitter after China and the United States. The IEA’s 2021 energy outlook report for India noted that energy use in the country of 1.3 billion people has doubled since 2000, with 80% of demand being met by coal, oil, and solid biomass. Coal alone accounts for 70% of the total, but the burning of heavily polluting solid biomass, mainly firewood, which is the cooking fuel for nearly 660 million people in the country, has long been an environmental issue. Other problems include older electricity facilities that are in financial trouble.

Projected growth in electricity demand over the next two decades means India will need to add a power system equivalent to the electricity production of the entire European Union to what it has now, according to the IEA report, in order to ensure a sufficient supply.

At the start of COP26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out the country’s emissions policy, which calls for carbon neutrality by 2070. For 2030, Modi said India would reduce carbon intensity of the economy to 45% below 2005 levels, increase non-fossil power generation by 500 gigawatts, and have renewables power 50% of its energy needs.

But as environmental activists noted, it was unclear whether these goals are conditional upon, or could even be realized without, massive international financial and technological support. India’s position is that given the massive number of its citizens that still rely on fossil fuels, it is not ready to agree to a phase out.

During the final hours of negotiations in Glasgow, Indian environment minister Bhupender Yadav said that, given the life-and-death issues that developing countries like India still face, it was too early to demand they phase out coal, especially since previous promises from developed countries to scale up aid and technical assistance have yet to be fully realized.

“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal?” Yadav asked at the end of COP26. “Developing countries have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication.”

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