US and Japan leave G7 stuck on coal

The climate unity of rich democracies foundered on their inability to commit to ending coal use.

US and Japan leave G7 stuck on coal

FALMOUTH, England — At a global summit meant to showcase their efforts to rescue the climate, the leaders of the richest, most advanced countries on the planet were left stuck on the rock that fueled the 19th century.

Days of negotiations at the G7 leaders summit in Cornwall failed to set an end-date for coal after the U.S. and Japan blocked a deal.

The meeting was pitched as a moment for the group to set a benchmark for other countries to tackle emissions and scrub out fossil fuels ahead of the COP26 U.N. climate talks this November.

“We were clear this weekend that action has to start with us,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters immediately after the meeting ended Sunday.

But the Biden administration — fixated on cultivating the Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority and the coal mining sympathies of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin — was wary of any language specifically clamping down on coal.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “We sought language that aligns with the president’s domestic commitments, including a carbon pollution free power sector by 2035. We secured that language.”

The 25-page final statement committed to “an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s” and to “accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity,” meaning coal without carbon capture technology.

The “overwhelming majority” of G7 members backed a phaseout in the 2030s, an EU official said. But Japan, which since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident has viewed coal power as critical to its energy security, was also opposed, according to someone with knowledge of the discussions.

“No specific date could be named, that was not our doing,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in response to a question from POLITICO. Of the G7 countries that have set a coal phaseout date, Germany is the latest at 2038. “We are setting a good example,” Merkel said. “Others have not yet verified their plans so far.”

Financing coal

The leaders did agree to stop financing coal plants and mines beyond their borders by the end of this year. That was intended to send a message to China, by far the world’s largest backer of coal. But it’s unclear whether Japan — the third largest financier — will follow through with a policy shift.

A government official couldn’t say whether Tokyo would change its current policy of funding coal only in countries where it considers there is no viable alternative fuel. “I have questions and no answers,” a Japanese official said. “Something should be announced by the end of the year. What that would look like is yet to be determined.”

The U.K. hosts also pushed for a commitment from the G7 to stop producing diesel and gasoline cars by 2035. That hard date was also nixed.

Those results infuriated campaigners.

Extinction Rebellion protesters parked a van across the road out of the seaside village where leaders met. “All we’ve had are hollow words,” said a spokesperson for the group. “We’re in no better position than before the G7 took place.”

In a first for the G7, leaders laid out the overall goals they believe will secure a safe climate: limit warming to 1.5 degrees and reach net zero emissions no later than 2050.

Meeting those goals means global coal use should more than halve this decade, the International Energy Agency, a global authority on energy modelling, recently said. But in many developing countries coal use is still rising; China has said it won’t begin decreasing coal use until 2026 at the earliest.

The U.S., the EU and others have lobbied Beijing to peak its use earlier, but their case is undermined by their own disunity.

The leaders were reminded of their responsibility and the timeline for action by broadcaster David Attenborough, who in a video address called the decisions that need to be made this decade, in particular by advanced economies, “the most important in human history.”

Political danger

The U.S. resistance to setting a timeline on coal highlights the political jeopardy for leaders with significant coal industries.

Climate policy necessitates that the most-carbon intensive major form of energy production must be dramatically curtailed within the terms of many current governments. It means hard political conversations with coal workers employed in a sector that has no recognizable future.

For Manchin, and West Virginia’s coal miners, the ground beneath leaders’ feet in Cornwall holds a stark warning of the brutal consequences of an industrial transition. The luxury hotel where they met in Carbis Bay sits above a network of disused Victorian-era tin mines. After the industry collapsed in the 1870s, depopulation and deindustrialization followed. One-and-a-half centuries later, Cornwall still lags behind much of the U.K. 

But, just down the road in Falmouth, the clean energy revolution offers hope of a reversal. Dairy farmer Clare Parnell was handing out Cornish pasties — an empanada-like local delicacy — to the international press corps. She said proposed wind and geothermal energy projects offer new jobs and the electric vehicle revolution brings the prospect that mining could return to extract copper and lithium. 

“We’re moving back really, because mining and engineering is in the ethos of Cornwall,” said Parnell, a board member of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.

Aware of the potential political and social consequences of a mismanaged transition from coal, Canada, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. launched a $2 billion fund to support new industries and retrain workers in developing countries.

They also announced a geopolitical project — Build Back Better World — to rival China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure investment plan, although it was not immediately clear that there was any new money being readied to match China’s hundreds of billions. 

“In the face of the perfect storm of planetary crises — climate, COVID, injustice and ecosystem collapse — the world’s richest democracies have responded with a plan to make a plan,” said Laurence Tubiana, a former French diplomat and one of the key drafters of the Paris climate agreement, now CEO of the European Climate Foundation. 

But with G7 governments focusing on their economic recovery, even longstanding financial commitments are going unmet. The rich world promised $100 billion in annual funding by 2020 to poorer countries to help with climate change, but ahead of the summit was still running about $20 billion short. 

Only Germany and Canada made new pledges. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doubled Canada’s finance to around $1 billion each year. A government spokesperson said Germany would boost finance from €4 billion to €6 billion. 

The German spokesperson added that the success of the COP26 talks “depends crucially on the climate finance commitments of the industrialized countries. The G7 should lead the way on this.”

“It’s a lot of money still to raise,” said Johnson.

But with one eye on his attempt to convince developing countries to step up their climate goals before he plays host again at COP26, he said: “It’s quite important that we do. Why should someone from the developing world believe that they have to make some changes to their technology to cut CO2 … We’ve got to make that commitment and that’s the logic of it.”

Anita Kumar, Jakob Hanke Vela, Anna Isaac and David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.