U.N. Climate Chief To Industry Leaders: ‘Coal Must Change Rapidly And Dramatically’

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CREDIT: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

U.N. climate official Christiana Figueres.

U.N. climate official Christiana Figueres.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam

WARSAW, POLAND — On Monday, UNFCCC Secretariat Christiana Figueres addressed the International Coal and Climate Summit, calling for a rapid transition of the coal industry to meet the challenge of a already-changing climate.

The two-day summit, co-hosted by the World Coal Association, a global industry group, and the Polish Ministry of Economics, began Monday in Warsaw — just 2.5 kilometers from the conference of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Parties to the convention began their second week of meetings today, as they work out the broad strokes of an agreement to limit global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would limit worldwide temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius.

Figueres said that the world faces two vast interlinked challenges: the need to eradicate poverty, which will require widespread affordable energy in developing countries, and the need to stabilize a rapidly changing climate in order to fulfill our moral obligations to “present and future generations.” Taking on those challenges will require a middle path based on a rethinking of the place of coal in the global energy mix.

“The coal industry faces a business continuation risk that you can no longer afford to ignore,” Figueres said to the group of coal-producing and coal-dependent industry leaders.

In light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report stark declaration with “near certainty” that climate change is caused by humans, recent moves by the World Bank and other development institutions to end financing of coal-fired power plants, and broad-based calls for divestment from fossil fuel companies, Figueres said that the industry’s financial plans must change.

The coal industry “must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake,” Figueres stated bluntly. She called on the industry to initiate a “transition plan,” something that might include: closing existing high-emitting subcritical power plants; implementing safe carbon capture, use and storage technologies (CCUS) in new plants; and leaving the majority of coal reserves in the ground.

Though the World Coal Association has not issued a statement about Figueres’ specific proposals, they welcomed the conversation. “We’re not going to meet our climate objectives if we are not all part of the solution,” CEO Milton Catelin said in an email after Figueres’ remarks. “Ms. Figueres has shown she shares the WCA’s view that multi-stakeholder dialogue is key to tackling climate change.”

Still, the event — and the Polish government’s support of it — was one more sign of Poland’s slow and stubborn response to climate change. The country relies almost exclusively on dirty, outdated coal-fired power plants, and is currently working to build two new coal plants without carbon capture, use and storage technology, which would violate E.U. regulations.

Jesse Vogel is a senior at Oberlin College and former intern with the Center for American Progress. He will be in Warsaw all week, covering the climate talks for Climate Progress.