COP26 host the UK claimed a big win for the summit as it unveiled a coalition of nations and organisations pledging to phase out coal and replace it with renewables.

Although there was immediate focus on big names such as China and India that were not on the list and concern over the timescale involved, other analysts swung behind the enlarged group as a key driver of emissions reductions, with new coal-focused economies such as Chile, Vietnam and Poland joining more than 40 countries making commitments to phase out the most polluting power source.

A Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement signed by the nations commits them to end all new investment in coal generation at home and abroad, and phase it out of their economies in the 2030s for major nations and the 2040s elsewhere.

The signatories also promise to “rapidly scale up deployment of clean power generation” and enforce a “just transition” for those affected by the coal exit.

“The end of new coal power construction is in sight,” claimed a statement from the UK business department.

“By the end of this year, all new public finance for unabated coal power plants will have stopped, with investments increasingly focused instead on accelerating the transition to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, now cheaper than coal generation in most countries.”

Replacing the power retiring coal plants with renewables is often seen as a quick win for economies, while the presence of grid connections at coastal coal stations can sometimes act as convenient hook-up points for offshore wind.

Enduring, and in some cases increasing use of coal, particularly in Asia, has also rung alarm bells over a resurgence in emissions after the Covid pandemic.

Mixed reaction

Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Ember analyst Dave Jones said the COP26 commitments “will help shift whole continents to phase out coal”. Durand D’souza, a data scientist at Carbon Tracker, said: “This is such a big deal! When I started working on the energy transition just three years ago, there was little talk of phasing out coal power within Europe or beyond.

“Today, pledges such as this one make that world a reality. While the world needs to be off coal by 2040 (not 2040s), this pledge gets us 90% of the way there. Asset stranding is not merely a potential risk but a genuine reality for many regions.”

Environmental group Friends of the Earth, however, said “coal is basically allowed to continue as normal for years yet” under the agreement.

Some commentators also warned that the focus on coal could let oil & gas emissions off the hook.

Murray Worth, campaign leader at environmental group Global Witness, said: "This announcement falls spectacularly short of what this moment requires. An agreement that only tackles coal doesn't even solve half the problem - emissions from oil and gas already far outstrip coal.”

"The science is absolutely clear, all fossil fuels must be phased out if we're to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. A truly ambitious agreement on energy to put the world on course for 1.5°C would be a phase out of coal, oil and gas. This is a small step forwards when what was needed was a giant leap."