The next round of global climate talks, the 27th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (CoP 27) at Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, will be conducted in the shadow of an energy chaos in Europe, with ramifications for the world. As such, experts foresee a lowering of global expectations from the round of talks that should have ideally built on the gains from the Paris and Glasgow accords, which have pushed the most ambitious climate action plan so far. This is more so, as the action agreed to under Paris and Glasgow accords are still far short of what is needed to contain warming to levels where it inflicts the least projected damage. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman was indeed reading the tea leaves earlier this month when she said that coal would make a comeback even in the developed countries, notwithstanding the promises of a walk-away from fossil fuels that the West has been making for a long time.
Europe is reeling under an energy crisis after Russia made large cuts to its natural-gas supply to the continent in response to the West’s economic action against it due to the war against Ukraine. And the crisis is only going to deepen as winter progresses. A rapid march of general inflation on top of high energy prices in the West has forced the political class to mull going back or slow on climate commitments. Austria is planning to revive coal generation after having shut its last coal-fired plant two years ago. While the opposition in that country managed to stave this off in August after the government mooted the reopening proposal in June, it seems unlikely that climate-conscious politicians can continue to maintain a ‘no coal’ stand as winter bites.
Denmark, Finland, Germany, France, the UK, and many other European nations are also delaying closures or reviving decommissioned units or even considering adding capacity. All of this has triggered concomitant growth in coal production and exports—Poland plans to increase production from existing mines by an additional 1.5 million tonnes. Global seaborne coal exports hit a record high in July this year, with Europe sourcing from even those coal-producing countries it has seldom imported from in record volume. Against such a backdrop, coal consumption is projected to rise again this year, after it grew 6% last year following the global recovery from the pandemic.
The final text of the Glasgow summit included calls for a “phasedown” of generation from coal-fired facilities without carbon capture and ending coal subsidies. Even as India has made substantial commitments on adoption of clean energy, including renewables, and cutting overall carbon output and emission intensity of growth, coal consumption is still estimated to increase by 40% over the next decade. In that context, it would be hard to fault developing countries like India for their continued reliance on coal. Instead of sitting back as developed countries turn the clock back on coal pleading the energy crisis and the developing countries’ reliance on dirty fuels, India and other developing nations must build pressure on the West at CoP27 to build resilience through renewables for their power markets even as they aid the rest of the world in accelerating climate-action. The West has reneged on its commitments in this regard in the past, with deadline for $100 billion in annual climate funding being shifted from 2020 to 2023. Holding the West to account has become even more important with the UN’s recent warning that even with the revised climate pledges of nations warming by the end of the century would shoot past 2oC.