The global climate deal reached at the Paris climate talks has left a big question unanswered: what do to about coal? It isn’t even mentioned in the agreement text.
There is growing recognition that continued expansion of fossil fuels is incompatible with stopping dangerous climate change. If the international community wishes to limit global warming to a maximum of 2℃, only 886 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) can be emitted between 2000 and 2050. Locked in the ground is 2,795 billion tonnes, 65% of which is coal.
Given this simple maths, only one-fifth of these fossil fuels can be dug up. Most fossil fuel reserves cannot be used. Creating new coal mines or searching for new sources is not compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change. It is simply wasted investment.
This has provided the basis for the “no new coalmines” campaign. It is an idea that has gained traction around the world. So is it legally possible to undertake such a drastic international action?
A global moratorium on new coal mines is rapidly gaining international support. The idea has even passed the lips of world leaders. On the summit’s opening day, Kiribati’s president Anote Tong told the assembled heads of state:
I have issued a call for a global moratorium on new investments on coal mines as endorsed by my fellow Pacific Leaders and I invite you all to join this call.
The climate talks have traditionally focused on tackling fossil fuel demand by attempting to limit countries’ overall greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond the negotiations, restricting the supply of fossil fuels is becoming the centre of attention.
The divestment movement has experienced considerable success in persuading concerned citizens and institutions to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies. The Obama administration recently rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, partly on the rationale that it undercuts US climate leadership.
Political support is increasing rapidly and could soon reach a tipping point that leads to international legal action either through, or outside of, the UN climate negotiations.
Through the climate convention
While Paris will not deliver a global moratorium on new coal mines, or even a dialogue about it, it could still happen in the near future. There are climate conferences every year and each one adopts a set of new decisions.
Countries could decide in the future to develop further rules for the pledging process, including putting forward what national actions are being taken to limit fossil fuel extraction.
Another option would be simply to amend the text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or the Paris agreement at a later date. For the UNFCCC this could be done by a three-quarter majority vote (although the changes would only apply to countries who vote for and ratify the amendment).
The UNFCCC’s subsidiary body for science and technology could also be empowered to make recommendations on fossil fuel extraction, given a 2℃ carbon budget. This body has looked at carbon budget issues previously and has reviewed the temperature target.
Looking at the implications of fossil fuel extraction would be a logical step forward, and well within the body’s abilities. This could provide the basis for recommendations to the wider negotiations on what reaching 2℃ means for coal. Spoiler: new coal reserves are not compatible with the 2℃ threshold.
A political problem
The UN is not the only game in town. Some of the most powerful international institutions, such as the World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO), operate outside of the UN.
It’s feasible that a small group of countries could forge ahead to create their own semi-global agreement outside of the UN. This is not without precedence. The WTO was originally the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT) with only 34 members.
Such an agreement could involve a group of countries pledging to ban the creation or expansion of coal infrastructure within their own sovereign borders, and to encouraging others to do so. They could even create regulations to forbid the purchase of coal from specific sources (new coal mines), although this would probably face technical issues and be challenged as arbitrary discrimination under the WTO, as has previously happened for Venezuelan gas exports.
At the very least, an agreement could establish a ruling for governments to divest from projects or companies involved in the expansion and creation of coal mines, or of fossil fuels in general.
Such a move may seem fruitless given that it would be taken by a coalition of the willing and would probably not involve major coal exporters. But as pointed out above, agreements rarely stay frozen in time. If designed correctly they can grow in membership and influence.
A multi-country agreement on no new coal mines could help to create a powerful new international norm, and help to signal a market push away from new coal mines and coal in general.
Stopping the creation and expansion of coal mines is not a legal problem. Numerous legal avenues to implement a moratorium on new coal exist. It is a purely political problem.
The world appears to be awakening to the simple fact that limiting warming to 2℃ means we cannot use existing coal reserves, let alone seek out new ones. The question is who will act first: the UN climate talks, or a critical mass of willing countries?