The world might be on track for a temperature increase of 2.5-3 degrees

The world needs to be phasing out coal power quickly enough to achieve the Paris Agreement’s target of a maximum of 2 degrees of warming. According to a new study by researchers from Chalmers University of Technology and Lund University in Sweden, the world is on track for a temperature increase of 2.5-3 degrees, which is higher than the Paris Agreement’s target. The study found that the commitments made by 72 countries to phase out coal use by 2022-2050 need to be stronger to achieve the target.

Commitments to phase out coal are not sufficient

The study’s researchers analyzed the countries’ pledged commitments to phase out their coal use and found that while more countries are promising to phase out coal from their energy systems, their commitments still need to be revised. The phasing out of coal needs to happen faster if there is to be a realistic chance of meeting the 2-degree target, according to Aleh Cherp, a professor at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University.

The study also showed that it is feasible to avoid higher warming if both China and India begin phasing out their coal use within five years and at a rate as rapid as the UK. However, the researchers’ most realistic scenarios indicate that Earth is approaching a 2.5-3 degrees global warming.

The researchers note that the commitments made by the 72 countries are similar, and they align with historical data for how quickly coal power was phased out in the past. They also highlight that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may prevent some countries from phasing out coal in the way and speed they promised.

Countries and their commitments

Countries with a larger share of coal power tend to pledge later phase-out dates, according to the study analyzing 72 countries’ commitments to phasing coal power by 2022-2050. The research found that the implied phase-out rate or the relationship between the share of coal in electricity and the number of years before the pledged phase-out date is stable for both earlier and later pledges.

However, the implied phase-out rates are lower for countries with higher coal shares, consistent with the UK and Germany’s historical experience of initially targeting large shares of coal for phase-out. The study reveals that faster decline is only pledged in smaller countries because it is more challenging to implement rapid phase-out in large heterogeneous systems.

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No signs of ratcheting up

While some countries have actually brought forward their phase-out date, other countries delayed their planned phase-out date or built new coal power plants, which suggests that the “ratcheting up” of pledges to phase out coal power so far has been unstable and vulnerable to external shocks, such as energy security concerns triggered by the Russo-Ukrainian war.

The study also finds that the ambition of coal phase-out pledges is consistent across countries, including between ‘climate leaders’ and ‘followers.’ This means that the benefits of policy and technology learning accessible to the followers may be cancelled out by their less favourable socio-political circumstances.

The existing challenges are hard to overcome

The article stresses the challenges of coal phase-out that is compatible with strict climate targets. To align with the 1.5 ◦C or 2 ◦C target, policies should stipulate that coal power decline faster than in the existing pledges of climate front-runners and faster than what was ever historically achieved even in an individual country. This requires much stronger effort from India and China than from OECD countries. Such unequal effort sharing not only creates ethical problems but may also trigger resistance from countries where most effort is expected and thus jeopardize the feasibility of a successful transition.

The article suggests that monetary transfers can compensate for unequal burden allocation to alleviate justice and fairness concerns. Another approach would be to reduce the required pace of the power sector’s emission reductions through faster decarbonization in other sectors or lessen the necessary rate of coal phase-out by retrofitting coal plants with carbon capture and storage.

The authors examined the process of coal power phase-out and developed empirically-grounded assumptions about a range of future policies that can be expected in different regions. They constructed feasible coal phase-out scenarios.

While the findings and scenarios are limited to coal, they can provide input to more complex models and scenarios, as encouraged by other feasibility assessments targeting different climate solutions.

Andrea Nyilas is a Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability Consultant and a Sustainability and Environmental journalist. She holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from Central European University, in addition to a Master of Arts degree in Economics from the Corvinus University of Budapest. She is particularly interested in circular economy, natural resource management, and waste reduction.