[Explained] Phasing out coal

Main photo: Booleansplit/Flickr

The world’s nations recently concluded two weeks of negotiations at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26) in Glasgow, trying to lash out deals and agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

The planet’s average surface temperature has already risen by around 1.18 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century thanks to human activities.

The aim at COP26 was for countries to reach a deal to limit global average temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Climate scientists claim that currently, human activities are set to heat the world by more than 3 degrees Celsius if the global economy continues business-as-usual.

That scenario will be disastrous as it will accelerate mass extinctions and make large parts of the planet uninhabitable for all life, including humans. Destabilizing climate events such as heatwaves, flooding and storms will become more frequent and more extreme.

One of the most notable agreements reached at COP26 was the Global Coal to Clean Power Statement, where signing countries pledged to phase out the use of coal. Egypt was one of the signatories.

Coal was the second most used fossil fuel in 2020 between oil and natural gas. 27 percent of the world’s energy came from coal in 2019.

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel in that it produces the most CO2 per unit of energy. In 2020, coal was the most polluting energy source contributing almost 14 billion tonnes of CO2, with oil in second place contributing 11 billion tonnes. Coal also has the highest carbon emissions per capita, contributing 1.79 tonnes per capita, above oil’s 1.42 tonnes.

In order for the world to have a chance at limiting global heating to 1.5 Celsius, 42 percent of the world’s coal-fired power plants have to be shut down by 2030.

The negotiations over coal use were one of the most hard fought at COP26, initially beginning with the intention to phase it out but then being watered down by India (the world’s largest coal consumer) to the phrase “phasing down” in the final hours of the conference.

Earlier in the two-week conference, Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, pledged that India will become net zero by 2070, considerably later than the more globally agreed target of 2050.

More than 40 countries signed up to the COP26 coal agreement, which calls on advanced economies to completely phase out coal power in the 2030s and emerging economies (such as Egypt) to phase out in the 2040s. India and China (two of the world’s biggest coal producers), however, did not sign the agreement.

It includes clauses on rapidly scaling up renewable energy and new technologies to assist in the phasing out of coal. It also includes a clause on ceasing the construction of any new coal power plants and ending subsidies for coal projects.

The statement is not legally binding, however, and leaves it up to individual countries to decide how to implement their transitions.

What does that mean for Egypt then?

Coal provides a small portion of Egypt’s overall energy sources, only 2.14 percent in 2019. Although, it is a significant fuel in some of the country’s key industries. According to Enterprise, 16 of Egypt’s 18 cement producers use coal as an energy source for at least some of their manufacturing processes. Coal use actually increased since 2016 after many fuel subsidies were lifted.

According to a McKinsey report on green transitions for manufacturing in Africa published in September 2021, Egyptian manufacturing contributed 20 percent of the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest after South Africa. The country’s cement industry contributes the highest emissions in the manufacturing sector.

According to the latest available data from the Egyptian environment ministry, cement contributed 51 percent of manufacturing emissions in 2015. The same report estimated that by 2025, the cement industry’s energy demands will increase to 9.7 million tons of coal per year if it continues business-as-usual.

Egypt will also be the host country for COP27, set to take place next year in the South Sinai tourist resort of Sharm El Sheikh. The government has said the conference will be used to focus on securing adequate financing and aid for poorer countries to be able to fight the climate crisis.

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