OTTAWA — Canada and the United Kingdom are hosting a "coal-free day" at the United Nations climate talks in Katowice, Poland, a city built on coal mining.
Poland relies on coal for almost 80 per cent of its electricity, more than double the global average, and Katowice is the heart of its industry. The city of about 300,000 people grew up around workshops and mills fuelled by the coal deposits abundant in the ground.
At the International Congress Centre in Katowice, where thousands of environment leaders and representatives from almost every country in the world are meeting for at least two weeks, you can see the smoke stacks and plumes of coal exhaust from nearby power plants.
Attendees, whose mission at these talks is to set rules for monitoring countries' progress in meeting their climate-change promises, were greeted by the Polish Coal Miners Band. Displays inside the conference hall include wire baskets filled with coal. Coal jewelry and soap are for sale. The "COP24" conference's main sponsors are all coal companies, including the Polish state-owned coal-mining concern and the state-owned power company.
Coal is the world's dirtiest source of electricity, producing generally twice the greenhouse-gas emissions of natural gas and contributing to air pollution that kills an estimated 800,000 people a year. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year warned of the grave impacts on the planet if the world doesn't curb emissions significantly over the next decade, and to do that, suggested 60 per cent of existing coal plants must be closed by 2030.
Polish President Andrzej Duda used his opening speech at the COP24 conference on Dec. 3 to declare that coal is not the enemy of climate change action.
"The use of one's own resources — in Poland's case coal — and basing energy security on them, is not in conflict with climate protection," he said in Polish.
Poland is not on its own. The United States, with President Donald Trump's promises to make coal king again in his country, is hosting a side meeting on how fossil fuels can be used cleanly. Russia, which has yet to ratify the Paris accord on climate change, remains a huge exporter and supporter of coal. China, which is trying to close coal plants at home, nevertheless is funding them elsewhere.
Since the Paris climate-change agreement was signed in 2015, more than 92,000 megawatts of new coal power has been added to the world's energy supply and more than six times that amount is planned in new or expanded coal plants. Perhaps the single biggest move to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada, the closure of coal plants in Ontario between 2000 and 2014, took about 8,800 megawatts of coal power off the grid.
Canada still gets about 10 per cent of its electricity from coal.
Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna shrugged off naysayers as she spoke of plans to push the Powering Past Coal Alliance at this year's climate talks. The alliance says all developed nations should phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030, and the rest of the world should do it by 2050. The group includes 28 nations thus far but faces stronger opposition from coal-dominant economies each passing day.
"Some of the countries have taken different tacks, but we know that there's a huge opportunity to reduce emissions and if we're going to meet our Paris targets we all have to phase out coal," said McKenna in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
She said "we are going to be working very hard at COP" to promote the alliance. Canada plans to phase coal out by 2030, although there will likely be allowances for plants that have mechanisms to capture and store their carbon-dioxide emissions. The United Kingdom, where coal has plunged as a source of electricity thanks to government policies including a carbon tax, is to close its last coal plant in 2025.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press