Australian researchers have called on governments to sign a ‘Coal Elimination Treaty’, to drive massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to provide an opportunity to limit global warming to within safe limits.
Researchers from UNSW Canberra and the University of the Sunshine Coast have proposed the idea of a treaty as a way see countries engage directly with the issues around the phase out of coal, including a ‘just transition’ for communities and workers.
“Global climate governance needs new ideas that can drive faster action and while the signing of 2015 Paris Agreement was a great success, it is not achieving a fast-enough reduction in emissions,” UNSW Canberra professor Anthony Burke said.
The researchers said that a direct focus on coal was justifiable given its historical contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as its ongoing contribution to toxic pollution.
A global coal phase-out is likely to be key to successfully achieve any goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. The researchers suggest that governments have between just 18 months and seven years to act to limit warming to just 1.5 degrees.
“Coal contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, uranium and thorium, which are released into the atmosphere and linger in coal waste which has adverse impacts on health and can lead to death,” professor Burke said.
“Beyond [1.5 degrees] lies a terrifying future of runaway climate change. Apart from the prospect of even worse fires, one of my biggest fears is that one or more of our northern cities, such as Townsville or Cairns, will be destroyed by a Category 5+ cyclone, which are becoming ever more common.”
Professor Anthony Burke, who specialises in international and political studies, worked with Dr Stefanie Fishel from the University of the Sunshine Coast and a Visiting Fellow at UNSW Canberra, to develop the proposal.
The researchers considered the current global governance structures in place that guide global negotiations on climate action and found that the development of a ‘coal elimination treaty’ could be achieved under the current structures.
This could include a treaty negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has previously facilitated the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, but a treaty would not be limited to using the UNFCCC forum.
“The most viable model is to have the UN General Assembly sponsor a conference to adopt a treaty, much as it did in 2017 with the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. That model also means states who are reluctant at first can join later,” Burke added.
The research follows growing calls from major research and financial institutions for governments to embrace and prepare for a phase-out of coal, including calls from central banks and major institutional investors.
A group of central banks, including the Reserve Bank of Australia, have predicted that a complete phase-out of coal in the Asia region would be a necessary part of efforts to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Importantly, the researchers stressed that given the accelerating pace of the transition away from coal, that governments must look to protect and support workers in industries that need to be phased-out, and to ensure a ‘just transition’ is facilitated as companies shut down coal assets.
“They are already doing so because renewables are rapidly increasing their market share – but it is not happening fast enough to prevent dangerous climate change,” Burke added. “The risk is that workers are left stranded by overnight closures. That is why ‘just transition’ policies – which support workers to retrain without loss of income and build sustainable and smart new industries in coal-dependent regions – are so important.”
“All of this requires governments, business, unions and communities to work together.”