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Balancing pledges with pragmatism at COP26 as demands of energy transition hit home

By Andrew Bradshaw, Fifth Ring

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By Andrew Bradshaw, head of energy insight, Fifth Ring

China produces vastly more coal than other countries.
China produces vastly more coal than other countries.

With the dust having fully settled on COP26, many of us will be poring over the pledges that were made in Glasgow at the beginning of November.

It’s fair to say that the final agreement has probably delighted and disappointed in equal measure, depending on what each of us was hoping the conference would achieve.

This article is being written while the event is still under way and the COP26 draft deal is being worked on, so it’s impossible to say what the final agreement will look like. However, experience would suggest that the demands being made usually start off looking fairly bold and dramatic before being tempered down to something that the majority of delegates can accept.

There were several highlights from the first week, including a pledge by more than 40 countries – among them five of the world’s top 20 coal consuming countries such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile – to phase out the use of coal in the 2030s for major economies and in the 2040s for poorer nations.

UK business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced: “The end of coal is in sight”. It’s a pity, then, that nobody told China or other large emitters such as the US, who didn’t sign up to the pledge.

As the delegates in Glasgow were adding their names to a document intending to close the door on coal, China announced that its daily coal production had reached a multi-year high of almost 12 million tonnes per day – more than 10 per cent higher than in September. The highly respected Javier Blas, chief energy correspondent at Bloomberg News, calculated that in just 90 days, the production increase from China was the same as Poland produced in a whole year.

Regular readers will recall I highlighted the energy dilemma posed by coal in the last issue of Energy North. The industrialised world is keen to turn its back on coal, which is the most polluting fossil fuel. However, in recent months we’ve seen our dependence on coal increase rather than decrease to fill the gap left by gas and wind power shortages to provide our electricity.

This ‘part of the problem, part of the solution’ dilemma also extends to oil and gas, given that several of its biggest players are also among the heaviest investors in renewable energy.

Indeed, while there were calls from campaigners at COP26 for an end to fossil fuel development, the President of the United States, who has previously spoken about a transition from oil, was simultaneously attempting to strong arm the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies (OPEC+) into increasing daily production levels.

This is because oil prices have shot up in recent weeks due to the use of oil as a replacement fuel for gas and because the world is swinging back to business after the pandemic.

In response, OPEC+ refused to increase production, anticipating that oil prices will fall back early next year as production exceeds consumption. A pro energy transition president calling for more oil and a pro oil-producing organisation refusing to increase supply was one of the more confusing vignettes to the bigger COP26 show.

As if not to be outdone, just days after calling on others to raise their climate ambitions at COP26, France’s President Macron announced the relaunch of the construction of nuclear reactors in his country, the first program in decades. The decision was described as “disconnected from reality” by Greenpeace.

Nobody said the energy transition was going to be easy, but COP26 really highlighted the extent of the practical challenges ahead for governments in reaching agreed net zero and greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Like the COP26 deal, there may be some measures in future that we agree with, some we are prepared to accept and some that are unpalatable to us. Playing off pragmatism against popularity and polarised principles will test our elected representatives, industry leaders and even ourselves.

Andrew Bradshaw.
Andrew Bradshaw.
  • Andrew Bradshaw is head of energy insight at global corporate communications company Fifth Ring and is based at the company’s Inverness office. He is internationally recognised as one of the leading experts in energy public relations.

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