Boost for Glasgow Climate Pact as German coalition talks point to earlier coal phase out date and Portugal confirms closure of last coal power plant

Much of the reaction to the COP26 Climate Summit has understandably focused on the huge diplomatic challenge that awaits if countries are to be convinced to strengthen their national climate action plans within just 12 months.

Writing in the Guardian yesterday, COP26 President Alok Sharma acknowledged that “the work of the COP26 presidency is really only just beginning”, as it strives to ensure the progress promised by the Glasgow Climate Pact is actually delivered. “Over the course of the next year, we will work with countries, urging them to take action and honour their promises,” he said. “There is no formal policing process in the UN framework convention on climate change system, and so we must keep up the constructive pressure, and build on the trust and goodwill generated through COP26.”

The problem is that trust and goodwill is in pretty short supply in key parts of the world. China and India hijacked the final hour of the Summit to water down key promises to “phase out” unabated coal power, angering industrialised and poorer nations alike. Russia was notable for its near-silent role throughout the two weeks in Glasgow. The ink was not even dry on the new Pact before Australia and New Zealand signalled they had no intention of strengthening their national climate action plan, or nationally determined contribution (NDC) in the UN jargon. It was only after the gavel came down that Brazil published new data confirming Amazon deforestation has soared to its highest levels since 2006.

Meanwhile, the many multilateral and public-private climate pledges made during the Summit stand accused of overstating their impact. Most notably the coalition of nations pledging to phase out coal power and coal financing contained just 46 countries, many of which already had coal phase out targets in place or do not currently operate coal power plants.

However, as ever with climate diplomacy there are two sides to the story. The days following COP26 have also provided a snapshot of how plenty of key NDCs could yet be strengthened next year – and once again coal is at the heart of the action.

Reports this week from Reuters suggest the coalition negotiations between the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats, have agreed to commit to a coal phase-out by 2030, pulling forward the current target date by eight years.

Sources told the news agency that the three parties are close to finalising an agreement that could be announced as early as this week.

Climate policy is set to be at the heart of any new agreement, including potential new targets to end power generation from gas by 2040, ban the installation of gas boilers, end the sale of internal combustion engine cars and vans by 2035, and ramp up the production of blue hydrogen.

Reuters reported that the ambitious new targets are likely to be backed by the formation of an expanded climate ministry, which would also take responsibility for industrial and energy policy.

The news comes in the same week as Portugal became the fourth European country to stop burning coal for power generation when its only remaining coal plant closed ten days ahead of schedule.

The closure of the Pego plant completes a raid phase out of coal power for the country, which only announced its intention to transition away from coal power at the COP23 Climate Summit in Bonn in 2017. The government originally set a target to phase out coal power by 2030, but has now met the goal fully eight years early.

The milestone means Portugal joins Belgium, Austria, and Sweden in fully phasing out coal power. It also sits alongside the UK, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, and now it seems Germany in pulling forward its original coal phase out date.

“Portugal is the perfect example of how once a country commits to quitting coal, the pace of the phase out inevitably accelerates,” said Kathrin Gutmann, Europe Beyond Coal campaign director. “The benefits of transitioning to renewables are so great, once started, it only makes sense to get out of coal as fast as possible. Coal’s dire economics and public desire for climate action are driving faster and faster phase outs across Europe. The challenge now is to ensure utilities do not make the mistake of replacing coal with fossil gas, or unsustainable biomass.”

The Pego plant does now look set to join the on-going debate over the environmental merits and pitfalls of biomass power, with the site’s owner Endesa considering plans to convert the 682MW plant to burn wood pellets. But if the debate over the low carbon credentials of biomass is set to run and run, the impact of accelerated coal phase out plans on the coal market remains incontestable.

The events in Germany and Portugal also point to how NDCs could yet be strengthened in response to the Glasgow Climate Pact. Elections have potential to change the political dynamics in several of the countries that currently have underpowered national climate plans. Most notably, elections are due in Australia and Brazil last year with climate and environmental policies set to provide a major political battleground.

Meanwhile, Portugal is just one of many countries where analysts believe the decarbonisation plans officially submitted as NDCs to the UN are either overly conservative or fail to capture the full extent of national climate policies. There are reasons to think some plans could be strengthened without calling on Treasuries for additional funding or pushing through new legislation, and instead simply updating assumptions about the pace at which clean technologies can be deployed and coal phased out.

Accelerating climate action in the wake of COP26 remains an immense political and diplomatic challenge, but as Germany and Portugal have this week demonstrated there could be some relatively easy wins on the horizon.

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