G20 Delivers Reprieve for Coal-Fired Power

The Glasgow conference has not started well. Trains were delayed by a storm and a fallen tree. Access to the venue was a shambles, with the accreditation process holding up delegates – including those who had gone through the process the day before. With the temperature struggling to just double figures, the delegates might have wished for some modest global warming.

But I am sure they will do better when reorganising the world economy.

The bad news started before COP26 even kicked off, however, with the ambitions of the UK, EU and US rebuffed at the G20 meeting held immediately prior, in Rome. There China, Russia, Brazil, and Australia, among others blocked the ambit claims. Johnson reported that only 12 of the 20 governments supported his ambitions, and the communique (the Rome Declaration) contained weaker language about only reaching Net Zero ‘by or around mid-century’ – ironically, almost back to the original Paris aim of the second half of the century (as I discussed in a Bulletin last week, available here).

Also watered down – significantly for Australia – was the attempt to secure an end to construction of coal-fired power stations by 2030. Friday’s draft read: ‘We will do our utmost to avoid building new unabated coal power generation capacity, taking national circumstances into account.’ By Saturday, that became: ‘We will do our utmost, taking national circumstances into account, to refrain from building new unabated coal power generation capacity in the 2030s.’

Then, the version adopted on Sunday was:

We will cooperate on deployment and dissemination of zero or low carbon emission and renewable technologies… to enable a transition towards low-emission power systems. This will also enable those countries that commit to phasing out investment in new unabated coal power generation capacity to do so as soon as possible.

According to the Oxford Dictionary  ‘unabated’ in common usage means ‘without any reduction in intensity or strength’. Its use in this mangled context leaves some creative ambiguity for those who think it requires the use of carbon capture and storage, and also those who think reduced emissions intensity(less carbon per unit of energy) will suffice..

After Rome, things took a further turn for the worse for Boris, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deciding he would not attend Glasgow. Rather strangely, Turkey had an item on the Agenda seeking to withdraw from the Annex I (developed) countries, but on the opening day of COP26 Turkey withdrew the agenda item, noting it had recently ratified the Paris Agreement, characterising it as an indication of the country’s will to work constructively.

The stance of the Chinese delegation was signalled by their reaction to the  closing press conference in Rome, which  was carefully stage managed, Chinese state affiliated media tweeted:

The format of G20 closing press conference by Italian PM Mario Draghi is a disappointment because the lady has a name list in hand, reporters were picked beforehand. No others were allowed to raise hands, no reporter from Asia on the name list. We waited 3 hrs before it started.

Subsequently, it has been announced that China’s president Xi Jinping will not even give the ‘virtual’ speech that had been planned, but instead only submit a written statement.

The opening session on Sunday seemed more like a revival meeting than the start of an important negotiating conference, with everyone from Boris to Prince Charles seeking to rally the faithful. There was even a speech from ‘COP 26 People’s Advocate’ Sir David Attenborough, who claimed that the stability of the climate system that enabled the development of human civilisation was breaking, and urged world leaders to turn this tragedy into a triumph by reducing global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. (He seemed blissfully ignorant of the fact that all known civilisations emerged in the instability of the substantial warming as the earth came out of the last interglacial period, allowing a flourishing of agriculture, relative population booms, and settled cities).

The opening statements from negotiating groups and leaders has seen few surprises. India has promised Net Zero for 2070, and expansion in renewables and so on, and the developing countries, either individually or in various groups have sought more money, and expressed their displeasure at the failure to deliver on the US$100 Billion per annum pledge.

They have also signalled clearly that they will continue to press for the historical emissions of developed countries be factored in. The developing countries want their chance to develop, and believe those countries already at that stage have used up more than their fair share of the global carbon dioxide ‘budget’.

With the UK and the EU still gaining so much advantage by using 1990 as the base year for their commitments, their claim to the moral high ground is tenuous. There is an old Scots joke about a traveller asking a local for directions to Glasgow. ‘If I were going to Glasgow,’ he answered, ‘I would nae start from here.’ If Boris wanted to get to get to Net Zero by 2050 and 1.5°C, he probably would not have wished to start from here.