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COP26 coal phase out agreement is welcome but ignoring steel significantly limits impact
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Thursday, 4 November 2021
More than 40 countries have agreed to phase out their use of coal-fired power, the dirtiest fuel source, at the COP26 climate summit.
Major coal-using countries, including Canada, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, Indonesia and Vietnam, will phase out their use of coal for electricity generation, with the bigger economies doing so in the 2030s, and smaller economies doing so in the 2040s.
However, some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent economies, including Australia, China, India and the US were missing from the deal.
Valentin, Vogl, from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: "Phasing out thermal coal in the near future is to be celebrated and will help in reaching international climate targets, but it is only half the battle. Since the 1990s, 40% of coal consumed worldwide has been used for steel production. Excluding met coal from the party puts the UK’s climate commitments at risk.
"This coal phase-out agreement solely focuses on thermal coal, burnt to generate electricity. Metallurgical coal (in short: met coal), used for iron and steel production, is brushed under the carpet as a minor issue to be resolved at a later point. But it is far from a minor issue. Annual emissions from coal-based steel production are around 2.7 Gt CO2, which is almost exclusively due to the use of coal. The emissions commitment is about 5% of the remaining 1.5C carbon budget. Met coal is about one seventh of global coal trade currently.
"To get rid of coal in steel production, blast furnaces need to be closed and replaced by direct reduction or recycling. Due to its large scrap exports, the UK is in a privileged position to be able to shift to a largely recycling based steel industry and should be taking a global lead in developing a high-performing steel recycling industry.
"Phase-out commitments on thermal coal are largely based on three factors: an affordable alternative, public pressure, and concrete strategies. For steel and met coal, these factors now need to be worked out.
"Affordable alternatives exist today and are increasingly becoming competitive, with recycling being a wide-spread and well-understood practice.
"The UK Government and the British steel industry need to make concrete plans for a transition away from coal. Only when such plans are worked out will the coal phase-out agreements really mean the beginning of the end for coal.
"And while the UK positions itself at the centre of this latest COP announcement, it is hard to overlook its own dual personality on the matter of coal. The public persona is one of a leaders’, eloquently persuading other countries to give up coal and unofficially making the summit about coal, cars, cash and trees and aiming to “consign coal to history”.
"But beneath the surface is another character which is hoping to open a new coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Clearly it weakens the UK’s position in negotiating with China and India to give up coal when our own deeds don’t match our words.
"The UK’s neglect for met coal is symptomatic for a wider misunderstanding or non-recognition of met coal and its difference to thermal coal. Without recognising them as needing to be part of the same solution, today's agreement is unlikely to live up to the rhetoric of its supporters."