Dispute over coal exit set to dominate G20 leaders’ summit

The Italian presidency is seeking to secure an agreement to phase out coal power but there is resistance from members including China, India and Australia

Loy Yang coal power station in Victoria, Australia (Photo: Dale Cochrane/Greenpeace)


The group of G20 major economies are locking horns over whether to signal the end of coal power – spelling difficult negotiations for leaders meeting in Rome, Italy, this weekend.

The meeting is key to providing momentum for the UN Cop26 climate talks, which begin on 31 October and last for two weeks.

The Italian presidency is hoping to land a statement that commits the world’s largest emitters to accelerate actions this decade in line with limiting global heating to 1.5C – the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement.

For Rome, that requires signalling the end of unabated coal power both at home and internationally.

Excerpts from one of the latest draft statements seeks a commitment to “achieving largely decarbonised power systems in the 2030s”. This draft was prepared by the Italian presidency and seen by Climate Home News and is likely to be changed.

The draft includes a commitment to “put an end to the provision of international public finance for newly built unabated coal power by the end of 2021”.

The draft text states that countries  “will do our utmost to avoid building new unabated coal power generation capacity taking national circumstances into account with a view to accelerating the transition away from coal to meet timeframes aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement”.

But getting behind a coal exit has proved contentious among national officials. Climate Home News understand the language of the text is being strongly resisted by some coal users and producers, including Australia.

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Discussions on coal are expected to reach leaders level on Sunday afternoon – a sign of how fast the issue of coal phase out has climbed up the political agenda in recent months. On Friday, the Italian presidency has been working on a new version of the text to move countries closer to a resolution.

While observers are hopeful that countries can at least agree to end the overseas financing of unabated coal-fired power plants, Climate Home understands this is meeting some countries’ red lines – with an agreement on avoiding building new coal plants at home facing an even steeper climb.

The issue has split the G20 between those countries ready to phase out coal and those defending the fossil fuel. China and India were in the latter camp during a meeting of climate and energy ministers in July.

Since then, president Xi Jinping announced at the UN general assembly in September that China would stop building coal power plants in other countries – effectively drying up much of the international finance for coal.

Campaigners are still expecting more details from Beijing over whether the announcement covers existing projects, citing analysis that more than 13GW of announced deals and planned projects could still go ahead.

The G20 statement could be a moment for China to signal greater ambition after it merely formalised existing commitments in its updated 2030 climate plan to the UN on Thursday.

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Both Japan and South Korea vowed to end their financing of overseas coal projects earlier this year. Last week, a group of OECD countries including Japan, South Korea and Turkey agreed on an immediate ban for financial support for international coal-fired power plants.

And there is likely to be movement in Indonesia. Prime minister Boris Johnson told the UK parliament that president Joko Widodo agreed “to bring forward the abolition of coal use in Indonesia to 2040”.

But while Jakarta might move on coal, it has shown resistance to language “committing” countries to carbon neutrality, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

A glimpse of the text shared in a video by Argentinian official Jorge Argüello on Friday suggests countries still couldn’t agree on whether to include a date for “achieving global net zero green house gas emissions” with the 2050 date still appearing in brackets and subject to negotiation.

Ahead of the meeting, Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, told reporters that the outcome of the G20 leaders’ summit should not precipitate conclusions about the outcome of the Cop26 talks.

That’s because developing countries are not in the room in Rome “to push the ambition,” she said. While at the G20 “it’s a group of richer countries that decide. It’s the whole of the world who is decision at Cop26 and that is a whole different question.”

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