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The president of the COP26 summit, British MP Alok Sharma, said the developments mean that the end of coal is 'in sight.'Michael Probst/The Associated Press

A new global pact to transition away from coal power, announced on Thursday at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, has been compromised by the refusal of the world’s biggest emitters to sign on.

The host British government has made it a primary goal of the United Nations conference to “consign to history” the fuel currently responsible for about 30 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, and succeeded in getting some heretofore coal-friendly or coal-reliant countries – such as Indonesia, Poland, South Korea and Vietnam – to be among more than 40 nations joining the agreement.

The president of the COP26 summit, British MP Alok Sharma, said the developments mean that the end of coal is “in sight.”

But the United States, China and India – which together account for roughly 70 per cent of the world’s coal consumption – were among those did not sign on.

That was despite the pact being tailored to draw in signatories by using less stringent criteria than a pre-existing anti-coal coalition – also spearheaded by Britain, along with Canada – that confusingly also announced new members on the same day.

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To join that earlier group, called the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), governments (as well as other members such as energy utilities) must agree to set a specific date by which they will phase out coal power. It now involves 48 countries, with the newest participants including Chile, Ukraine and Slovenia.

The new deal announced on Thursday, titled the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, commits to ending new permitting and construction of coal-fired power generation projects. But its requirements to end existing coal reliance are soft: “a transition away from unabated coal power generation in the 2030s (or as soon as possible thereafter) for major economies and in the 2040s (or as soon as possible thereafter) globally.”

At the conference, those familiar with the British government’s efforts to secure the deal, including Canadian officials and international coal-policy experts, described it as an attempt to engage coal-reliant countries that are not yet ready to commit to the PPCA’s loftier goals, but might more gradually be nudged toward them.

The relatively lax criteria of the new deal drew scathing criticism from Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former environment minister, who played an instrumental role setting up the PPCA.

“Powering Past Coal is intended to accelerate countries’ transition as quickly as possible,” she said. “Weakening the price of admission to join a voluntary initiative does nothing for the planet.”

She added that the new coal-power pact is reflective of the annual COP event becoming “a plethora of announcements,” when it needs to focus on “the math and the hard work” of holding global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels, as per the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Others at the conference were more optimistic about the deal representing progress.

“The U.K. used the Coal to Clean Statement to open a conversation with many of the more coal-intensive countries and really push them,” said Chris Littlecott, an associate director at the London-based think tank E3G who specializes in coal policy. “It was a high-risk strategy, but it has paid off through the inclusion of four of the most difficult coal countries in Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam and Poland.”

In some cases, member countries appear to have been convinced by lobbying efforts at the very last moment. A news release about the agreement Wednesday night did not have South Korea on the list of signatories, but it was included in the official announcement on Thursday afternoon.

Still, the reaction at COP was more muted than British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might have hoped would greet his attempt at a deal that would define the gathering.

The lack of U.S. participation is a particular disappointment, given that President Joe Biden has previously promised a clean electricity grid in his country by 2035, and was expected to use the summit to try to put Washington back at the forefront of international climate efforts.

His administration’s reluctance to sign on comes as it struggles to get through Congress a spending bill meant to drive that clean-energy transition. Hanging in the balance is a crucial swing vote from Senator Joe Manchin – who represents West Virginia, a state that still has a significant coal industry.

While expected, the non-participation of China and India is even more limiting in the deal’s potential impact as those countries continue to use more coal to feed their growing energy needs.

Australia, which is one of the world’s biggest coal exporters and something of a villain at COP26 for its general refusal to set ambitious climate goals, was also notable in its absence.

As recently as a month ago, China was in the midst of a coal crunch with thermal coal prices trading at a record high, and fears over the superpower not being able to burn enough of the fuel to heat homes this winter.

China faced a sharp shortfall because it is refusing to import coal from Australia over a trade dispute. China’s hunger for coal is also a function of factories consuming materially more electricity than a year ago, as the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic passes and industrial demand snaps back. China is extremely dependent on coal, with 60 per cent of its electricity grid powered by the commodity. The dearth of imported coal has led to utilities in China on occasion to implement rolling blackouts.

The extreme shortage has ebbed in recent weeks, partly because China is allowing more domestic production of coal. China’s State Administration of Coal Mine Safety recently said the country’s daily output can temporarily go up by about 600 tons a day.

With a report from Niall McGee in Toronto

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