COP26 and the importance of frontrunners

11 November 2021

COP26 has been flooded by joint group frontrunner initiatives, trying to move beyond the painstakingly slow process of raising ambitions by consensus, from new alliances to tackle methane emissions and deforestation to a number of initiatives to phase out coal and the launch today of a new alliance to phase out oil and gas. From one perspective most of these initiatives only make a small dent to the emission gap to meet the Paris goals. From another perspective group frontrunner initiatives are key to accelerate climate action and push overall ambitions.

The first perspective was highlighted today when scientists and experts in the Climate Action Tracker collaboration presented an assessment on how much the new frontrunner initiatives at COP26 would effect the emission gap until 2030. According to the calculations the new initiatives would close the 2030 emission gap for the 1.5°C target by around 9%. This could be compared to the updated NDC:s themselves, which according to Climate Action Tracker close the gap by 15-17%, arriving at a total number around 24-25%.

These 9% might feel small and unimportant. However, as the scientists behind the new assessment emphasized, the effect of these initiatives are not restricted to the short term impacts on emissions among the current signatories. The broader potential of frontrunner alliances is both to accelerate techno-economical change and to put political pressure on other countries to join in.

“It is not surprising that the effect of the COP26 sectoral initiatives beyond national climate targets is initially small. These initiatives are designed for those that do NOT sign immediately. The pressure of being put on the spot will help to grow the membership of the initiatives and enhance the effect beyond national climate targets in the long run”, professor Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute stated in a press release on the assessment.

One example on this are the new and enlarged alliances to phase out coal, finance to new coal power plants, and to support a just transition away from coal. At face value the promises made by the countries only give a small dent to the emission curve up until 2030. However, all in all the countries involved represent a total coal capacity of 267 GW, more than that of US or India, and also include coal dependent countries like Indonesia. Adding promises to dry up international public funding for new coal plants – including from China – the initiatives underline a clear and definite trend: coal is dying. This is the reason why the official language in the cover text of COP26 can – and probably will – include wordings to phase out coal.

From a deeper perspective the death spiral for coal is a prime example on how frontline initiatives in a relatively small number of key countries can initiate an unstoppable global trend. Coal has been the first fossil fuel to take the hit by ever cheaper renewable energy. And the breakthrough for renewable energy, in turn, was pushed by public support for industrial scale up in countries like Germany, Denmark and China. Globally, coal consumption actually reached its maximum already in 2014. And today the death spiral for coal is enhanced by both decreasing costs for renewable energy and sharpened climate policy.

Indeed, as the scientists in the Climate Action Tracker collaboration emphasize, this is not enough. The transition away from coal needs to be speeded up significantly. In order to hold on to the 1.5°C target, coal would need to be phased out around 2040 globally, and probably around 2030 in the developed world. This is a tall order, not the least for countries like China, with a huge fleet of relatively new coal plants. The techno-economical development itself will push the process. But it will not be enough. And this is where frontrunners and new alliances are important. If the EU and US for example could lead by showing that a just transition away from coal is possible in 10-15 years, and financial support for a just transition could be expanded, the chances to close the gap would enhance significantly.

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