Coal phase-out alone will not be fast enough, developed countries must speed up oil and gas exit for 1.5°C
February 6, 2023 — IPCC pathways are underestimating how much developed countries must cut carbon emissions to limit warming to 1.5°C and how fast oil and gas should be phased out globally, according to a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change .
These global pathways rely heavily on phasing out coal power as the primary way to cut emissions while putting less emphasis on the other two fossil fuels, oil and gas. They propose phasing out coal power at a pace that is unlikely to be socially feasible in major coal-dependent developing countries.
The relative pace of phasing out coal, oil and gas was a central issue at the last two international climate summits , where coal consumers such as India and China objected to the disproportionate focus on coal by developed countries compared to oil and gas.
This new research finds that in 1.5°C pathways , coal power would have to be phased out in India, China, and South Africa more than twice as fast as any power sector transition in the last 50 years, in any fuel and any country, relative to system size. This historical period includes rapid changes due to policies (such as responding to the 1970s oil price crisis) and political events (such as wars, sanctions and the collapse of the Soviet Union), suggesting that exceeding this pace of change may not be socially feasible.
Recognizing different countries’ situations, the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), a coalition of governments and businesses, has proposed that developed countries phase out coal power generation by 2030 and developing countries by 2050 . According to the new research, developing countries would still need to reduce their coal power generation by one third by 2030, including by closing the most polluting plants—a faster decline than those governments are currently planning. The research finds that this differentiated pace would put several countries at the limit of historical transitions, suggesting that it is difficult but feasible.
The researchers found that in order to achieve a 1.5°C target with this PPCA pace of coal phase-out, developed countries must reduce carbon emissions roughly 50% faster than when these speed limits are neglected. They also found that global oil and gas use must be phased out faster—for example, United States oil production up to 2050 is 20% lower than in a default 1.5°C pathway.
The study was conducted by climate researchers at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and University College London’s (UCL’s) Energy Institute.
Lead author Greg Muttitt, an energy expert at IISD, said:
Limiting climate change requires phasing out all three fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. Our research finds that climate models and policy debates rely too much on winding down coal at a pace that may not be feasible for coal-dependent developing countries. Instead, we need a fairer and more realistic balance, and this means more emphasis on oil and gas phase-out and greater efforts by the Global North.
It is crucial to phase out coal use as quickly as possible, both to limit warming to 1.5°C and to avoid the health damage caused by air pollution. The problem is that many models propose phasing coal out faster than is likely to be possible in some countries. The danger is then that if all governments follow the models’ guidance in all other respects, we will still exceed 1.5°C if the coal part cannot be achieved.
James Price, a climate and energy modeller at UCL, said:
It is critical that pathways to a 1.5°C future fairly distribute the efforts needed to get there, as this is likely to be a key prerequisite to reaching a global agreement to phase out all fossil fuels. Our study sets out just how important it is for models to map out a route to a 1.5°C future which better reflects the realities of the real world.
Greg Muttitt, Co-Lead, Sustainable Energy Supplies, IISD: [email protected], +44 7508 421 527
Paulina Resich, Senior Communications Officer, IISD: [email protected], +41795406301
Notes for editors:
1: Greg Muttitt, James Price, Steve Pye, & Dan Welsby. (2023, February 6) Socio-political feasibility of coal power phase-out and its role in mitigation pathways, Nature Climate Change, 6.
2: At COP 26 in Glasgow in 2021, India and China were accused of watering down text calling for a phase down of coal. At COP 27 in Sharm el Sheikh in 2022, India proposed broadening this to a phase-out of all fossil fuels, a proposal that was supported by over 80 countries before being blocked by several oil-producing countries.
3: Integrated assessment models, which feature strongly in reports by the IPCC, mostly judge pathways based on the lowest economic cost at a global level and do not generally reflect social costs or the circumstances of different countries.
4: The PPCA is a coalition of 48 national governments, 49 subnational governments, and 71 global organizations that was founded in 2017. Specifically, it proposes ending coal power generation by 2030 in countries that are members of the European Union or the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and by 2050 in other countries
5: The UCL Energy Institute delivers world-leading learning, research, and policy support on the challenges of climate change and energy security. An earlier study in Nature by the same UCL team found that nearly 60% of both oil and fossil methane gas and almost 90% of coal must remain in the ground by 2050 in order to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
6: IISD is an award-winning independent think tank working to fulfill a bold commitment: to create a world where people and the planet thrive. A recent report by IISD found that even before the coal feasibility issues are considered, 1.5C models leave no room for new oil and gas fields to be developed beyond those already in production.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is an award-winning independent think tank working to accelerate solutions for a stable climate, sustainable resource management, and fair economies. Our work inspires better decisions and sparks meaningful action to help people and the planet thrive. We shine a light on what can be achieved when governments, businesses, non-profits, and communities come together. IISD’s staff of more than 120 people, plus over 150 associates and consultants, come from across the globe and from many disciplines. With offices in Winnipeg, Geneva, Ottawa, and Toronto, our work affects lives in nearly 100 countries.
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