Seven Major Nations Agree to Phase Out Coal by 2035, Though Vague Language Leaves Wiggle Room

The wealthy, industrialized countries set a flexible schedule to cut one of the dirtiest fossil fuels from their economies

A wide-angled photograph of a coal-fired power plant in Germany.
A coal-fired power plant in Germany, which derives about 27 percent of its national electricity from coal. x1klima via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED

After several years of failed talks and inconclusive meetings, ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) countries—the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan—have agreed on a flexible plan to phase out the “unabated” use of coal-fired power plants by 2035, a significant step in curbing their economies’ reliance on one of Earth’s dirtiest fossil fuels.

“Stamping an end date on the coal era is precisely the kind of leadership we need from the world’s wealthiest countries,” says Jennifer Layke, the global director of energy at World Resources Institute, in a statement. “This decision provides a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, showing the transition away from coal can happen much faster than many thought possible.”

Still, experts have noted that the agreement, reached Tuesday in Turin, Italy, is worded in such a way that leaves a wide berth of wiggle room that could enable nations to burn coal beyond the 2035 deadline.

Using the word “unabated,” for instance, means that if power plants capture carbon emissions before they enter the atmosphere, the facilities can still operate. And countries that currently rely heavily upon coal—namely Japan, for which the fossil fuel contributes to 32 percent of its national electricity, and Germany, at 27 percent—can essentially take longer to transition to cleaner fuel.

Italy (which currently derives 5.3 percent of its electricity from coal), Canada (5 percent), the U.K. (1.4 percent) and France (0.4 percent) verbally committed to phase out coal by 2030. The United States (16 percent) and Germany “are taking major steps toward this date,’’ says Pieter de Pous, program lead for fossil fuel transition at the climate think tank E3G, in a statement, per the Associated Press. Japan has not yet committed to an official end date.

The new agreement also allows the countries to forego the calendar altogether and instead base their phase-out schedule on “a timeline consistent with keeping a limit of 1.5 [degrees Celsius]” of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Three trucks drive and load coal in a mine in England
An open cast coal mine in the United Kingdom, for which coal supplies less than two percent of its national power. Rab Lawrence via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 DEED

According to guidance of climate change experts, “6 percent of the world’s coal capacity must shut every year until 2040 to avoid a climate emergency,” writes Jillian Ambrose for the Guardian. “All coal plants should be shut by 2040—unless they are fitted with effective carbon-removal technology—if governments hope to limit global heating to within 1.5C.”

Meanwhile the world’s largest coal consumers—China, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the entire world’s coal usage, and India, with four-fifths of its electricity coming from coal—are continuing to ramp up their reliance on the resource, according to a report released last month by Global Energy Monitor.

“Right now, coal’s future is a two-part story: What do we do about currently operating coal plants, and then, how do we make sure the last coal plant that will ever exist is one that’s already built,” Flora Champenois, one of the authors of the recent report, told the New York Times Max Bearak in April. “If it weren’t for the China boom, that’s pretty much where we’d already be.”

The G7 agreement comes on the heels of last year’s COP 28 conference in the United Arab Emirates, in which countries stopped short of initiating a fossil fuel phase-out, instead agreeing to “transition away” from the energy sources. The new deal marks the first agreement between G7 nations to explicitly mention a phase-out of coal.

Domestically, the United States is also cracking down on coal. The Biden Administration released a sweeping suite of new emissions standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants last week. Under these rules, any coal-fired plants “that plan to run in the long-term” will need to control 90 percent of their carbon pollution, reduce the amount of pollutants released via wastewater by 660 million pounds per year and dispose of coal ash in newly federally regulated areas.

“It is important for rich countries that have relied so much on coal in the past to signal to emerging countries that they are done with coal,” Dave Jones, an electricity analyst at the climate and energy think tank Ember, tells E&E News Sara Schonhardt.

But Jane Ellis, head of climate policy at the think tank Climate Analytics, tells CNN’s Angela Dewan that natural gas should also be a phase-out target.

“In the last decade, gas has been the largest source of the global increase in CO2 emissions, and many G7 governments are investing in new domestic gas facilities,” she tells the publication. “This is absolutely the wrong direction to be heading in—both economically and for the climate.”

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