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Climate change negotations: let's talk about substance

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By Neil Hirst

· 2 min read

At the G20 Environment Ministers’ meeting in July, the G7 pressed for agreement that unabated coal should be phased out by 2025. Some considered the meeting a failure because China and India, amongst others, could not agree. That is all according to Reuters and other reputable sources.

Perhaps these sources were a bit misleading. I certainly hope so. Who in their right mind believes that China or India could do without coal by 2025? These vast nations with large relatively poor populations are relying on continuing rapid economic growth to raise living standards. They both depend on coal for about 80% of their electric power. In the case of China, world record investment in renewables is just about sufficient to meet the growth in electricity demand, leaving coal generation more or less static after years of rapid growth.

Possibly the conversation was more nuanced than the short reports that I have seen suggest. But surely this is the wrong way to go about winning vital international support for carbon reduction.

Coal is a big problem.  The coal that is burnt in power stations contributes nearly one third of global CO2 emissions and China and India are by far the biggest consumers. China alone burns about half of the world’s coal. We should certainly be talking to China and India about the practicalities of running this down as soon as possible. What are the options for providing alternative power on the prodigious scale required? What are the social and political implications of reducing the workforce and providing alternative sources of employment and prosperity for the regions affected? What are the financial implications of retiring what would otherwise be productive assets early? What contribution can international finance make towards meeting these challenges?

One of the achievements of the Paris climate summit in 2015 was that developing nations as well as developed nations agreed to provide climate targets. Now we are at the stage of “ratcheting up”. We should encourage developing nations to be as ambitious as they can. But we must also respect the fact that they face different challenges from those of the developed world. There is nothing to be gained from demanding the impossible.  We must engage on the substance that underlies climate targets as well as on the targets themselves.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Neil Hirst is a Senior Policy Fellow for Energy and Mitigation at the prestigious Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London. His main current activity, funded by the FCO, is a joint project with China’s Energy Research Institute on China and Global Energy Governance.

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