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As the amendment related to the burning of coal, the most urgent issue to tackle if the world is to have a hope of staying below an almost acceptable level of warming, it comes as no shock that some are now calling the outcome a “COP-out”.
China and India were behind the 11th hour change of wording. Also, surprise surprise, they are the two biggest consumers on the planet of the dirtiest fossil fuel.
Each country burns colossal, unimaginable, quantities of coal. For those who like big numbers, try getting your heads around these: Last year, China burnt 54.3% of the world’s total consumption of coal, the equivalent of 82.3 quintillion, or 82,300,000,000,000,000,000, joules of energy.
India’s burning accounted for 11.6% of the world’s total
coal consumption, or 17,500,000,000,000,000,000 joules of energy.
It seems incredible that just one changed word in a lengthy and complex document can make such a difference. But it came down to the words “out” and “down”.
When delegates from almost 200 countries reassembled in overtime at the end of the conference, COP26 president Alok Sharma — nicknamed “No Drama Sharma” — was ready to bang the gavel on an agreement which would eventually bring about an end to coal-fired power generation and help the world restrict global warming to 1.5degC above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.
But that was not to be. Suddenly, officials from China and India called for an amendment that changed “phase-out” of coal to “phase down”. They made it clear this was as far as they were prepared to go.
There was little choice for the conference but to accept the amendment. Wanting to save the fragile deal, which was based on several years of work, Mr Sharma, a British politician, realised there was no option and was close to tears.
He then issued an apology to the gathering: ‘‘May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment but I think as you have noted, it's also vital that we protect this package.’’
The last-gasp stymieing by the biggest embracers of coal is a vivid illustration of just what the rest of the world is up against.
Moving past coal is crucial to keeping that goal of 1.5degC or less of warming in sight, a target set at the 2015 Paris talks. Global average temperature rises beyond that by 2100 will unleash all kinds of irreversible climatic and environmental disasters.
To keep within that 1.5degC threshold, the International Energy Agency says 40% of the 8500 coal-fired power stations around the world have to close by 2030, with no new plants built.
Reaction to the coal hijacking has been especially searing from delegates of the Pacific Island nations which stand to lose the most from climate-induced rising sea levels. Some of these islands are already beginning to disappear below the waves.
Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative senior adviser and Samoan climate activist Auimatagi Joe Moeono-Kolio said amid the “hoopla and greenwashing”, the amendment “represents a monumental failure in recognising the clear and imminent danger entire countries are now in”.
New Zealand cannot afford to be too pious when it comes to coal. For a country which bangs on about its green credentials when it comes to electricity generation, we are still burning way too much coal, an embarrassment for the Government, which wants to have 100% renewable power by the end of this decade.
As deeply disappointing as the outcome of COP26 is to many, United Nations climate envoy John Kerry’s steadfast approach is worth copying.
“I’ll take ‘phase it down’ and take the fight into next year”, he said.