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Is the world ready to end the coal era and embrace clean energy?

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Access to electricity has transformed the world, helping countries to develop their economies, and lifting millions out of poverty. However, this success has come at a great cost: the energy sector, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, is responsible for some 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions – one of the so-called greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the Earth – and almost two-thirds of these emissions come from coal.

But, despite the United Nations calling urgently for an end to fossil fuels, hundreds of new coal-fired power stations are still being built, and hundreds more are in the pipeline. Is the world ready for a new era of clean, cheap and accessible energy for all?

Kick the coal habit, and put a price on carbon, urges UN chief

The UN chief has called for taxes to be placed on carbon emissions, an end to the trillions of dollars’ worth of estimated subsidies for fossil fuels, and for the construction of coal-fired power stations to be halted by 2020, if we are to stand a chance of ending the climate crisis.

Many countries, particularly developed economies, are starting to heed the UN’s message. However, Southeast Asia, one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world, appears to be stuck on fossil fuels as the answer to its energy needs: In November, Mr. Guterres told a meeting of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group in Thailand that coal “remains a major threat in relation to climate change”, adding that countries in Southeast Asia are some of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Asian development still fueled by coal

According to studies by the International Energy Agency, the region is expected to become a key driver of world energy trends over the next 20 years. Millions of people in Southeast Asia have gained access to electricity since 2000, and the region is on the way to achieving universal access by 2030.

The UN-backed Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), has compiled data showing that the region has the third highest number of coal power plants in the pipeline after China and India. Indonesia, Viet Nam and the Philippines have the largest coal plant pipeline of all South East Asian countries, with Malaysia and Thailand not far behind.

The wealthier Asian countries are also bankrolling coal beyond their borders: State-owned financial agencies in China, Japan, and South Korea are now, respectively, the largest sources of funding for coal plants in other countries: research from SEforALL shows that China was the largest international source international source of finance for coal, committing more than $1.7 billion in 2015/2016.

Coal is losing power

Nevertheless, the world, as a whole, is slowly moving in the right direction, and the number of plants currently being planned is falling. The amount of permits of new coal plants has dropped to record lows, and over a thousand have been cancelled,  a reflection of a tougher economic climate for coal plant developers, and the growing consensus for the need to limit global warming, and protect human health.

In November 2019, four years after the Paris Agreement, a key UN climate conference at which countries committed to step up efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures and boost climate action financing, the UN Secretary-General convened a Climate Action Summit in New York, where many nations announced beefed-up measures to combat the climate crisis, including putting limits on the amount of electricity produced from coal-based sources.

The UK, for example, is expected to completely phase out coal in the next few years, Germany – one of the world’s biggest users of coal – has agreed to stop by 2038, and eight other European Union countries have announced that they will put an end to coal use by 2030. Chile has pledged to close all of its coal-fired power stations by 2040, and South Korea will close 10 plants by 2022.

A “Powering Past Coal Alliance”, made up of 32 countries, 25 regional, provincial and municipal level governments, and 34 business members,  announced new members, including Germany and Slovakia, at the conference, committed to speeding up the transition from coal-based to clean energy, and to lead global efforts to curtail coal use.

Here comes the sun

In addition, more and more countries, and businesses, acknowledge that the use of renewable energy is not only the right thing to do for the planet, it also makes economic sense.

Technology already exists to enable the world to transition away from coal, and other fossil fuels; and also to connect the 840 million people who still don’t have access to electricity to clean, renewable energy sources. And it’s affordable.

SEforALL research shows that renewables are now the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world — cheaper than both new coal and new natural gas power – and, by 2030, wind and solar will undercut coal and gas almost everywhere.

Disconnect between words and actions

However, even with the decline in coal use, and growth in the use of renewables, the transition to clean energy is not taking place quickly enough, and there is still a big gap between countries’ climate commitments, and their planned production of fossil fuels, as demonstrated by the 2019 Production Gap report, the first of its kind, from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and research partners.

The gap is largest when it comes to coal: countries are currently planning to produce 150% more coal in 2030, than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C, and almost three times more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

“Despite more than two decades of climate policy making, fossil fuel production levels are higher than ever,” Måns Nilsson, head of the Stockholm Environment Institute, one of the organizations that produced the study, said in a press release. “This report shows that governments’ continued support for coal, oil and gas extraction is a big part of the problem. We’re in a deep hole, and we need to stop digging.”

In 2020, the UN launches a Decade of Action, to kickstart efforts to achieve the goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. When it comes to energy, the goal is to ensure affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all: the challenge for the UN, and the world, is to rapidly speed up the move towards renewables, and kick the coal habit once and for all.

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Global emissions are set to surge to an all-time high

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Governments worldwide are deploying an unprecedented amount of fiscal support aimed at stabilising and rebuilding their economies, but only about 2% of this spending has been allocated to clean energy measures, according to new analysis from the International Energy Agency.

The sums of money, both public and private, being mobilised worldwide by recovery plans fall well short of what is needed to reach international climate goals. These shortfalls are particularly pronounced in emerging and developing economies, many of which face particular financing challenges.

Under governments’ current recovery spending plans, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set to climb to record levels in 2023 and continue rising in the following years. This would leave the world far from the pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 that the IEA set out in its recent Global Roadmap to Net Zero.

These findings come from the new Sustainable Recovery Tracker that the IEA launched today to help policy makers assess how far recovery plans are moving the needle on climate. The new online tool is a contribution to the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Environment, Climate and Energy in Naples, which takes place on 22 and 23 July under the Presidency of Italy.

The Tracker monitors government spending allocated to sustainable recoveries and then estimates how much this spending boosts overall clean energy investment and to what degree this affects the trajectory of global CO2 emissions. The Tracker considers over 800 national sustainable recovery policies in its analysis, which are publicly available on the IEA website.

“Since the Covid-19 crisis erupted, many governments may have talked about the importance of building back better for a cleaner future, but many of them are yet to put their money where their mouth is. Despite increased climate ambitions, the amount of economic recovery funds being spent on clean energy is just a small sliver of the total,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

Governments have mobilised USD 16 trillion in fiscal support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, most of it focused on emergency financial relief for households and firms. Only 2% of the total is earmarked for clean energy transitions.

In the early phases of the pandemic, the IEA released the Sustainable Recovery Plan, which recommended USD 1 trillion of spending globally on clean energy measures that could feature prominently in recovery plans. According to the Plan – developed in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund – this spending would boost global economic growth, create millions of jobs and put the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

According to the Tracker, all the key sectors highlighted in the IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan are receiving inadequate attention from policy makers. Current government plans would only increase total public and private spending on clean energy to around USD 350 billion a year by 2023 – only 35% of what is envisaged in the Plan.

The Tracker shows the stark geographic disparities that are emerging in clean energy investment. The majority of funds are being mobilised in advanced economies, which are nearing 60% of the investment levels envisaged in the Sustainable Recovery Plan. Emerging and developing economies, many of which have limited fiscal leeway, have so far mobilised only about 20% of the recommended spending levels.

“Not only is clean energy investment still far from what’s needed to put the world on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, it’s not even enough to prevent global emissions from surging to a new record. Many countries – especially those where the needs are greatest – are also missing the benefits that well planned clean energy investment brings, such as stronger economic growth, new jobs and the development of the energy industries of the future,” Dr Birol said

“Governments need to increase spending and policy action rapidly to meet the commitments they made in Paris in 2015 – including the vital provision of financing by advanced economies to the developed world,” Dr Birol added. “But they must then go even further by leading clean energy investment and deployment to much greater heights beyond the recovery period in order to shift the world onto a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050, which is narrow but still achievable – if we act now.”

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Portugal’s energy policies set a clear pathway towards 2050 carbon neutrality

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Portugal’s equitable and well-balanced plans for reaching a carbon-neutral economy should support the country’s economic growth and energy security, according to a new energy policy review by the International Energy Agency.

Portugal’s energy and climate policies aim to reach carbon neutrality primarily through broad electrification of energy demand and a rapid expansion of renewable electricity generation, along with increased energy efficiency. These measures are backed by a strong focus on reducing dependency on energy imports and maintaining affordable access to energy. In the longer term, Portugal is aiming for hydrogen to play a major role in achieving carbon neutrality.

“Portugal was among the first countries in the world to set a target for carbon neutrality by 2050, and its Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality shows a strong commitment to electrifying its economy and ensuring a secure and affordable energy transition,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, who is launching the policy review today at an event with João Pedro Matos Fernandes, Portugal’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Action. “The IEA looks forwards to supporting the Portuguese government as it works on a fair and inclusive transition to a carbon-neutral economy.”

Portugal’s climate and energy goals still face notable challenges, the IEA policy review notes, with an economy that remains heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels today. The report welcomes steps the government is taking to address these challenges. An effective auction process for renewable energy projects should result in almost 2 gigawatts of new renewable generation coming online in the next few years, which will triple Portugal’s solar PV capacity.

Portugal is pushing to reduce oil demand and associated emissions through transport decarbonisation, with over EUR 10 billion of investments in electrified rail and public transport, favourable tax treatment for electric vehicles and support for charging infrastructure. Portugal is also taking a major step towards lowering emissions and reducing energy import dependency by phasing out coal-fired electricity generation in 2021.

Portugal sees a key role for hydrogen produced from renewable energy in hard-to-decarbonise sectors and for achieving carbon neutrality. The National Hydrogen Strategy sets a goal for hydrogen produced from renewable energy to cover 1.5-2% of Portugal’s energy demand by 2030, with use in industry, domestic maritime shipping, road transport and for injection into the natural gas network and potential exports.

“I congratulate Portugal for developing a broad policy framework with robust measures to achieve emission reductions,” Dr Birol said. “Portugal has found a good balance of ambitious targets and competitive support measures needed to drive a cost-effective energy transition.”

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EU energy programme with Eastern partner countries extends into second phase

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The European Commission has launched the second phase of its EU4Energy programme, which promotes low-carbon and clean energy transitions in the Eastern Partnership (EaP), a joint initiative involving the European Union, its Members States and six Eastern European Partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

“Promoting the Clean Energy Transition in the Eastern Partnership Countries: EU4Energy Phase II” will run for the next four years and will help develop legislative and regulatory frameworks that support the region’s energy transformation and the liberalisation of its energy markets, as well the digitalisation of its energy systems. Beyond reducing emissions, the programme’s goal is to provide the citizens of the Eastern Partnership Countries with more stable and resilient energy supplies, empowering consumers and increasing energy security.

The International Energy Agency is a partner in the EU4Energy programme along with the Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER) and the Energy Community Secretariat (EnCS). The 8 July kick-off conference for the programme’s second phase includes country representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine who will share their knowhow and experience to further enhance cooperation in the energy sector within the region.

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