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Will Cornwall Conquer Coal?

Brittaney Warren, Director, Policy Analysis, G7 Research Group
June 12, 2021

On the first day of the Cornwall Summit on June 12, 2021, the G7 leaders are already showing some movement on their environment ministers' commitment made in May "to take concrete steps towards an absolute end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021." First-mover leadership on this file has come from Canada, which announced on June 11 a new public policy statement that thermal coal mines create "unacceptable environmental effects." The policy does not firmly end the prospect of new coal mines, but it will inform whether or not coal projects under federal jurisdiction are approved.

Powering Past Coal Paves the Road to Rome

Canada has the support of the G7's UK host. The two countries partnered in 2017 to create the Powering Past Coal initiative. The initiative is a growing global alliance of state and non-state actors working together "to advance the transition from unabated coal power generation to clean energy." France, Germany and Italy are all members of the coalition. The European Union is not, but is constrained by member states that still rely on coal, such as Poland. Japan is still not a member of the initiative. But its spokesperson at the Cornwall Summit on June 11 said that "continued international investment in coal must stop" and that "Japan was willing to do our effort to that end." Japan also did not bow out of the environment ministers' coal phase-out commitment mentioned above.

Should Cornwall succeed in getting the G7 leaders consensus on this commitment, and if the leaders comply with it, it should have a sizeable impact on the G7's share of global emissions. The evidence is overwhelming that coal is a leading contributor to climate pollution. The International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that coal accounts for 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Most of these emissions are from Asia – China and India – plus the United States. But a united message from the G7 members can set an influential foundation for the G20 summit at the end of November, which will be hosted by Italy — a member of both the G7 and the Powering Past Coal initiative.

The G7's Evolving Consensus on Coal

The G7 has come a long way in its thinking about coal. Its first coal commitments were made in 1978 and 1979, in the aftershocks of the OPEC oil crisis. In those early days, the G7 committed "to substitute coal for oil," to "maintain positive attitudes toward investment for coal projects" and indeed that "coal should play an increasingly important role," with a caveat to not damage the environment. It continued this policy position into the 1980s. Throughout the 1990s it likely did too, but with the oil crisis now behind them, coal commitments were absent from the G7's communiqués.

Coal commitments reappeared in the 2000s, at the 2005 Gleneagles Summit. The G7 came with a new point of view, which at least somewhat took action on the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel first recognized in the late 1970s. The G7's new position was to advance "clean coal" and energy efficient coal-fired power plants. Here they relied on data and information collected from the global International Energy Agency (IEA) and its Clean Coal Centre. The 2007 Heiligendamm Summit was the last coal commitment the G7 made. It maintained the approach founded at Gleneagles to "support … clean coal."

A hint of a shift came at L'Aquila two years later in 2009, as the leaders acknowledged in their communiqué that coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel and its increased consumption "will pose a major challenge with regard to greenhouse gas emissions." Yet the solution remained on the low-hanging fruit of efficiency standards.

Since 2007, the G7 has not mentioned coal in any of its communiqués. The Cornwall Summit could therefore be a new milestone in the G7's coal governance and usher in a new era in its coal policy and outlook.

Moving Forward at Cornwall to Cut and Capture Carbon Emissions

This new position comes in the wake of widely shared IEA report effectively denouncing fossil fuels and stating that achieving the net-zero by 2050 goal, to which all G7 members have committed "requires … phasing out all unabated coal and oil power plants by 2040."

Should the G7 leaders in their Cornwall communiqué fully endorse the IEA recommendation on phasing out thermal coal power, and do so by the end of 2021 as their environment ministers added, it can be expected that they would comply very well with this commitment. This is due to the short-term benchmark of less than one year, which preliminary research from the G7 Research Group suggests is a good indicator of high compliance, and which also suggests higher political will.

To have the greatest impact and to ensure the G7 members meet their long-term targets of net-zero by 2050 and 45%–68% by 2030 under the Paris Agreement, the G7 should also commit to advancing its commitments by the environment ministers at their pre-Cornwall meeting in May to "phase out new direct support for carbon intensive international fossil fuel energy," which by definition would include the oil and gas sector, and to "eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by 2025." This also supports the IEA's recommendation to phase out oil power plants. In its new coal policy, Canada stated that "the continued mining and use of thermal coal for energy production in the world runs counter to what is needed to effectively combat climate change." This is true of all other fossil fuels too.

In order to implement these commitments, the G7 needs to create a step-by-step plan for a fast and just transition, that reflects the urgency of the climate and biodiversity emergency. It will also need to immediately halt unsustainable forestry practices and the felling of old-growth forests, starting with the ancient trees in Fairy Creek, British Columbia, and the centuries-old oak trees cut to re-build France's Notre Dame. These are critical and irreplaceable carbon sinks that are desperately needed to absorb the coal- and oil-fired carbon emissions already trapped in the atmosphere.

Doing these things and building on its new paradigm on a coal phase-out, the G7 can position itself as a global leader in renewable energy, and in natural carbon sinks with its many co-benefits. In this way, the G7 can take full advantage of the socioeconomic, human health and job creation benefits such first-mover action brings.

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