United Nations chief António Guterres has told leaders of the world’s largest economies, including Australia, that they must present plans for the phase-out of thermal coal use by 2030, saying it is essential to meet the Paris Agreement goals and protect future generations.
In a video message to the Powering Past Coal Alliance Summit held on Tuesday, Guterres called on members of the G7 and the OECD, which includes Australia, to commit to ending the use of coal, adding that countries are not doing enough to reduce emissions and support a transition to a sustainable global economy.
Guterres said that countries should put forward their plans for phasing out the use of coal before key international meetings scheduled for 2021, including the next round of international climate talks to be held in Glasgow before the end of the year.
“Today, I am calling on all governments, private companies and local authorities to take three steps. First, cancel all global coal projects in the pipeline and end the deadly addiction to coal,” Guterres told the summit.
“I urge all OECD countries to commit to phasing out coal by 2030 and for non-OECD countries to do so by 2040. Science tells us this is essential to meet the Paris Agreement goals and protect future generations.”
“Main emitters and coal users should announce their phase-out plans well before the Glasgow Conference. G7 members should take the lead and commit to this phase-out at the G7 June Summit at the latest.”
In a message with particular relevance to Australia, Guterres said that governments and private investors must stop the financing of new coal projects. Guterres argued that the use of coal is not just inconsistent with meeting agreed targets under the Paris Agreement, but that coal was also rapidly becoming economically unviable.
“Once upon a time, coal brought cheap electricity to entire regions and vital jobs to communities,” Guterres said. “Those days are gone.”
“More than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants. And coal’s economic viability is declining. This has been accelerated by the pandemic.”
“In virtually all markets, it is now cheaper to build new renewable energy capacity than new coal plants,” Guterres added.
Most members of the G7 have joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a group of countries and sub-national governments, which have set deadlines to phase out the use of coal. Canada and the United Kingdom launched the alliance in 2017 and were subsequently joined by Germany, France and Italy.
The United States and Japan remain the only G7 countries not to join the alliance, and Australia has yet to sign on.
Guterres pointed to a recent review of emissions reduction targets set by governments under the Paris Agreement, which found that the world was “nowhere near” being on track to keep global warming within agreed levels and that global emissions were expected to fall by just 0.5 per cent by 2030.
“Last Friday, the UN climate convention secretariat published the initial version of its Nationally Determined Contributions report — the collective scorecard on our path to 2030. The news wasn’t good. We have a long way to go,” Guterres said.
“But major emitters have a chance to present or re-submit more ambitious national climate plans in the next few months with credible emissions cuts aligned with the 1.5 degree objective. And if we take immediate action to end the dirtiest, most polluting and, yes, more and more costly fossil fuel from our power sectors, then we have a fighting chance to succeed.”
“This means that global coal use in electricity generation must fall by 80% below 2010 levels by 2030,” Guterres added.
The focus on leading global economies, through the reference to the G7 and the OCED, places additional international pressure on countries like Australia, where the Nationals, the junior partner in the Coalition government, is pushing for more coal generation facilities to be built.
In Australia, some existing coal generators are expected to close by 2030, both because they are old, such as the Liddell power station in New South Wales, or forced out early because of growing competition from renewables, as Origin Energy recently hinted could occur at the Eraring power station.
Adding to the pressures on the Morrison government is the potential election of a former federal cabinet minister as the new head of the OECD forum.
The OECD is expected to elect a new secretary general before the end of March, with former federal finance minister Mathias Cormann, a leading candidate.
Cormann has sought to address criticism that he is an unsuitable candidate for the role, given his previous support for cancelling Australia’s carbon price mechanism and lacklustre climate policies under successive coalition governments in Australia.
In a recent statement posted to LinkedIn, Cormann made clear that he accepted the global need to act on climate change, including commitments to a zero emissions target by 2050 – which is now considered the bare minimum for any OECD nation.
“Climate change is impacting everyone. Accelerating wildfires, more frequent dangerous weather events and rising sea levels,” Cormann’s LinkedIn post says. “On the critical issue of taking ambitious and effective action on climate change, it is essential that the OECD provide global leadership. Achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050 requires an urgent and major international effort.”
It is unclear whether Cormann would use the potential appointment to the OECD secretary general role to push the Morrison government to strengthen its emissions reduction targets.
Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt told RenewEconomy that Cormann would not be able to take a credible stance on climate policy as OECD secretary general, given his history in Australian politics.
“I am worried that Cormann will slow down global climate action, just as he did in Australia,” Bandt said. “We are talking about someone who recently just co-wrote a federal budget that included subsidies for gas and coal.”
“It defies credibility that Cormann could now be issuing calls to world leaders to phase out coal use or commit to zero emissions targets.”
Prime minister Scott Morrison has refused to set a deadline for an Australian shift to net zero emissions.