A Coal Exit Treaty Can Radically Simplify and Accelerate Climate Policy

A focus on eliminating coal power offers a much more pragmatic approach to deep decarbonization

While there are encouraging signs that the global emissions of carbon dioxide have plateaued, achieving deep decarbonization of the global economy remains a massive challenge. In this post I’ll propose a complementary approach to climate policy that is far more pragmatic than the current architecture of global climate policy.

For decades, climate policy has focused on managing outcomes, which at various times have included the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and more recently, global average surface temperatures. Such outcomes are useful for setting goals – like the well-known 2 degree Celsius temperature target -- but are poor choices for management, because such outcomes can only be indirectly managed. Policy typically works better when focused on managing causes rather than consequences.

Climate policy, broadly conceived, includes an incredible array of issues touching upon just about every facet of policy making, but here I focus on a narrow but important element of climate policy, the emission of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Here the math is incredibly simple: if the temperature targets of the Paris agreement are to be reached, then carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels necessarily must go to zero.

In 2020, according to the Global Carbon Project, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels totaled about 34 gigatons (Gt). Of that total about 14 Gt or about 40% came from the burning of coal. Eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from coal burning is obviously not sufficient to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide, but it is absolutely necessary.

So I’m proposing an international Coal Exit Treaty, focused on the complete phase out of coal burning for energy production. After all, the elimination of coal energy is a goal of climate policy, whether or not it is explicitly stated. Such a treaty could be negotiated under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, like the Paris Agreement, and could serve as a complement to ongoing climate policies.

Presently, according to the Global Energy Monitor, around the world there are 6,593 coal plants in operation and about 1,000 more in various stages of permitting or construction. To achieve a coal exit by 2050 would require that 5 of these plants be shut down or cancelled every week, starting today. That is unlikely to happen based on market forces or the gentle pressures of current climate policies.

There are of course complexities that would surely arise in negotiating any such treaty. For instance, yet-to-be-proven technologies of carbon capture and storage might make it possible for some to argue for certain coal plants to continue to operate. Also, existing coal power is distributed unevenly around the world, which would mean that different countries would share different burdens. Of course, such inequities are fundamental to climate policy whether focused on coal or not. Of course, the countries with more reliance on coal are also contributing disproportionately to carbon dioxide emissions.

A further complexity is that not all power plants are the same, some pollute much more than others. A recent study finds that 73% of emissions come from just 5% of power plants. A Coal Exit Treaty could score plants based on emissions, with priority given to shutting down the soonest those that pollute the most.

A coal exit would generally necessitate that power previously provided by coal to be replaced with a lower or zero carbon alternative. Gas is much cleaner than coal, but still emits carbon dioxide when burned (about 7.4 Gt in 2020). Indeed, a Gas Exit will eventually be necessary as well, but starting with coal makes sense. Thus, provisions for technology transfer and burden sharing would necessarily have to be a part of any such treaty, to increase the chances that coal power is replaced by renewables, nuclear or other zero-carbon technologies.

Germany has already shown that a negotiated coal exit is possible at the national level in a country that has historically been dependent on coal mining and coal energy. The German law sets the final exit date at 2038, and discussions and debate now center on possibly moving that date forward. Ideally, a global treaty would establish similar political dynamics.

Climate scenarios that underpin the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) envision a coal-dependent future, almost across the board, as shown in the figure below. Such futures now appear highly unlikely, and a coal exit treaty would all but rule them out.

According to BP, the world consumed about 560 exajoules (EJ) of energy, of which about 150 EJ (~27%) came from coal. Only two of the scenarios that inform the 6th IPCC assessment (called the SSP scenarios) envision a future with zero coal energy in 2100. These two scenarios result in a 2100 global temperature increase of 1.3C and 1.8C. Indeed of the 10 SSP scenarios with less than 5 EJ of coal in 2100, the global temperature increase ranges from 1.3C to 2.3C. Clearly, at least as viewed through the lens of the IPCC scenarios, very low coal consumption is consistent with lower levels of temperature increase.

A final benefit of a coal treaty is that it would lay bare the seriousness of government climate policy commitments. The current complex and convoluted approach to global climate policy provides ample room for unseriousness to be well-hidden behind a façade of apparent action and promises. Of course, sometimes a façade is necessary to achieve political consensus, but if that consensus comes at the expense of actual progress, then all we have done is to substitute symbolic action for actual action. A coal treaty would provide no room to hide from the commitments of climate policy.

A coal exit treaty makes a lot of sense. Let’s do it.