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Last hope over climate crisis requires end to coal, says Alok Sharma

·3 min read

Coal must be consigned to history as the world faces its “last hope” of holding back climate breakdown, the president of the Cop26 climate summit says.

Alok Sharma, a former UK business secretary and now president-designate of Cop26, to be held in Glasgow this November, is expected to say this Friday morning: “This is our last hope of keeping 1.5C alive. Our best chance of building a brighter future … of green jobs and cleaner air. I have faith that world leaders will rise to the occasion and not be found wanting in their tryst with destiny.”

Holding global temperature rises within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels is the aspirational goal of the Paris climate agreement, as scientists have warned that above that level glaciers will melt, low-lying islands will face inundation, and corals will die off.

In his speech Sharma singled out coal (the dirtiest fossil fuel) as “a personal priority”, and said he was working with governments and through international organisations to end the financing of the fossil fuel. “If we are serious about 1.5C, Glasgow must be the Cop that consigns coal to history, the coal business, as the UN secretary-general has said, going up in smoke. It’s old technology,” he said.

Increased coal use following the Covid-19 lockdowns has been blamed by the International Energy Agency for rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions, following a plunge last year. The world’s energy watchdog forecasts that during this yearthere will be second biggest leap in emissions on record.

The UK government has been embroiled for months in a row over a proposed new coalmine in Cumbria, which would be the first in the UK for 30 years.

The Cumbria mine was initially given the green light by Sharma’s fellow minister, the planning secretary, Robert Jenrick, a decision greeted by international outrage as the UK prepared to host Cop26. Ministers first argued that the mine would produce coking coal rather than coal for power generation, then sought to defuse the row by putting the decision to a public inquiry.

With six months of intense global diplomacy ahead, other UK ministers will be supporting Sharma’s efforts by focusing on efforts to green the economy. The government plans to showcase projects across the country which create green jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the government has faced criticism over a perceived mismatch between the prime minister’s pledges on climate action and the policies in place.

The UK’s flagship “green recovery” policy, the green homes grant scheme that was supposed to insulate hundreds of thousands of houses, was scrapped after only six months and disappointing results. Several other policies, concerning road-building, airport expansion, air passenger duty cuts for domestic flights, and cutting incentives for electric cars, have also been criticised.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, will ask other rich countries, at the G7 meeting in Cornwall next month, which he will chair, to provide much more financial assistance to poor countries to help them cut their emissions and cope with the impacts of climate breakdown. His decision to slash overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP, axing scores of projects, has been criticised by leading climate figures.

Tracy Carty, climate policy adviser at Oxfam, said: “While the UK government’s climate commitments are world leading, it must now avoid looking like the emperor with no clothes. Appearing to support a new coalmine in Cumbria while talking about consigning coal to history while sends completely the wrong signal. Supporting further oil and gas exploration in the North Sea also risk embarrassing the government in this crucial year.”