fishermen on a boat as smoke rises from Cilegon's Suralaya coal power plant.
Major coal users signed on to COP26's new agreement, but some important countries were missing. | RONALD SIAGIAN/AFP via Getty Images

More Than 40 Countries Just Agreed to Stop Using Coal. But…

The motion is historic, but the world's biggest coal polluters didn’t sign on to COP26’s renewable energy agreement.

Representatives from over 40 countries attending the COP26 climate summit have agreed to move away from coal in favor of renewable energy.

Major coal users including Canada, Poland, South Korea, Chile, and Vietnam all signed the new agreement, which requires participants to ditch the fossil fuel over the next two decades. The news comes as coal demand rebounds quickly after 2020’s coronavirus-related decline.

Signatories have pledged to end all investment in new coal generation immediately, with existing coal power to be phased out by the 2030s or the 2040s—for wealthy and poorer economies, respectively. The Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement includes at least 20 nations whose participation is their first public commitment to phasing out coal.

Coal is the single most significant contributor to the climate crisis, and the UK reports that the new agreement will help shut down 40GW of coal-powered plants—enough to power 30 million homes—in favor of more sustainable generation options, such as wind and solar.

a wind farm at dusk
Countries have pledged to rely on renewable energy, like wind, as opposed to coal. | Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

The transition from coal to renewables: who’s not on board?

However significant the agreement, China, Japan, India, the U.S., and Australia did not sign the new Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, meaning that some of the biggest coal-dependent nations in the world have not made these same commitments.

(China, India, and the U.S. were the three biggest consumers of coal worldwide in 2020.)

Critics have noted that this lack of participation by the biggest coal burners undermines the pledge, as does the last-minute change of a hard 2030 deadline to a murky “as soon as possible thereafter” for wealthy countries.

Even for those who have signed, there have been no new commitments to phasing out oil or gas, both of which are also key contributors to global warming and the climate crisis. Additionally, the pledge itself is not binding, meaning that there will likely be few repercussions (outside of climate change itself) if nations fail to reach the agreed-upon but vague targets.

Although South Africa, Indonesia, and the Philippines also did not sign up to phase out coal, they agreed to separate deals to retire many existing plants and infrastructure. This follows a separate announcement that the EU, UK, and US have pledged $8.5 billion to South Africa in order to help facilitate its transition away from coal. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s power generation is fueled by coal.

Some commentators have suggested that this may set a precedent for rich nations paying others to offset their own unabated emissions, but South African President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the support and called it a “watershed moment” for the country.

For more coverage of COP26, read on here and here.