Tag Archives: policy

The Political Struggle in Eliminating Coal

By Stephen Zhao

Advancements in renewable energy and natural gas have appeared to make coal a thing of the past, with the costs of solar, wind, and gas generated electricity approaching or even undercutting that of coal power. Yet, while market conditions no longer favour coal, its political importance prevents an easy transition to these other energy sources. As such, successful management of the coal energy transition will need to account for political roadblocks that will arise from a push towards reducing coal use.

Recently, countries such as China, Germany and the United States have backtracked in their efforts to reduce coal consumption. With the cancellation of China’s mining moratoriums, repeals of Obama-era environmental regulations under the Trump administration in the US, and the revival in coal capacity construction in Germany post-2008, these are just some examples of nations  reversing previous political efforts to limit coal, actions which are typically preceded by some form of political backlash or resistance.

Smoke rising from nearby coal-fired power plants in the Shanxi Province, China (Source: NY Times | Kevin Frayer | Getty Images)

A common factor amongst these aforementioned nations is also the trading regime governing their coal market. One key difference between coal and other fossil fuels is that it has much more domestic-oriented market dynamics. Over 90% of coal production and 85% of coal consumption lies within ten countries, of which about 70% of both production and consumption lie within China, India, and the United States alone. Whilst efforts to reducing consumption of oil and gas in one country often hurt producers in another, this is not the case with coal.

Countries with the biggest coal markets (i.e. China, India, Germany and the United States) tend to be both producers and consumers, which severely complicates the politics of reducing coal use within these markets. The presence of both production and consumption activities can generate a strong political coalition in the coal industry’s favour. Since most of the coal produced would be consumed domestically, the industry would be severely resistant to any attempts to reduce the domestic demand for coal. As geographically concentrated sources of employment and economic activity, local communities and political actors tend to work together  in defending the coal industry within the policy making process.

US President Donald Trump signalling his support for coal mining at a rally during the 2016 presidential campaign (Source: CNBC | Dominick Reuter | AFP | Getty Images)

Moreover, supporting for the coal industry’s commercial activities is substantial. In 2016, the United States Bureau of Labour counted approximately 57,000 individuals employed in coal production. However, if these calculations also include those working in supporting services,  the total increases 30% to around 74,000 employees. As an integrated supply chain, the coal industry is also tied to other economic interests such as railways, steel and heavy metal production, and the financial industry. The collapse of coal companies could cause severe disruptions in supply, leading to considerable loss of business or resulting in defaults on loans. All these factors mean that a rapid decline in coal consumption would create substantial dissatisfaction and backlash from a large number of political stakeholders.#

The decline of coal’s competitiveness in the market paradoxically enhances its political voice. In China, the prospect of mass unemployment for the country’s 5.2 million coal miners has made the Communist Party think twice about its broad stroke policies to reduce coal capacity. Disaffected miners in Pennsylvania and Ohio helped propel President Trump’s electoral victory in 2016. After a boom in natural gas, struggling coal-based power companies in Germany have managed to secure lenient provisions in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), allowing them to remain competitive. If efforts to reduce coal use are to get anywhere, something must be done to compensate the losers of the energy transition.

Local villagers carrying coal from the local open-cast mine in Jharia, India (Source: Zimbio | Daniel Berehulak |Getty Images AsiaPac)

Moving forward, solutions may need to incorporate compromises with community and commercial coal interests in order to succeed. Germany has recently taken to paying utility companies to shut down their coal plants. Whilst an expensive option, this initiative helps ease the strain on these firms’ bottom line and allows for a smoother wind down of the industry. Such policies, incorporated with a real focus to invest in communities losing out due to  coal industry decline, can help alleviate the political pressure that builds to protect coal.

Unfortunately there is no single, simple path for this energy transition to take, and despite optimism surrounding the market competitiveness of renewables and natural gas, reducing and eliminating coal will be far more complicated than just a matter of simple economics.

This blog post is based on a larger work about trading regimes and coal reduction policy. To read more about the trading regimes and the political economy of coal, click here.

About the Author


Stephan Zhao is a  Researcher at the University of Oxford, and Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.


What if Negative Emissions Fail at Scale?

By Alice Larkin (University of Manchester, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research)

It is recognised in the climate science community that literature and research informing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and relevant policymakers is heavily weighted towards Integrated Assessment Modelling (IAM) work. This prioritises emission-cutting solutions that can be more easily characterised and quantified over those that are challenging to evaluate precisely, such as how society may respond to a major policy shift.

Yet putting options into the ‘too difficult to quantify’ box, is a huge mistake, as my co-authors and I argue in a recent paper published in Climate Policy. Coupled with our desire to precisely quantify, and communicate, numbers, it is important to recognise that there appears to be an optimistic bias that assumes future technologies will solve present-day social and environmental problems.

Perhaps in most wealthy people’s minds, this would be the ideal – no need to disrupt ‘normalised’ lifestyles that include frequent flying, high levels of material consumption, an ability to have what we want, when we want. It is then easy to see why Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) fit neatly into the climate mitigation discourse. They could lead to net negative emissions in future, avoiding a need to invest political capital in more unpalatable areas such as lifestyle change, and reducing consumption.

But what if NETs fail at scale – what then? Our article argues that they are being so heavily relied upon to inform policymakers, that we are losing sight of alternatives. Furthermore, delaying meaningful debate on the demand-side of the equation is at odds with what the climate science is telling us. There is a finite carbon budget for avoiding 2°C, so the sooner emissions are cut, new habits and behaviours established, and infrastructures to support low-carbon lifestyles put in place, the lower the risk of devastating climate change impacts.

It is not uncommon for humans to be optimistic about what technology can deliver and by when. Carbon capture and storage – even without biomass– is a good example. And with most modelling work being done by those of us in privileged positions in terms of wealth, it is unsurprising that lifestyle change is low down our priority list.

My problem with this optimistic techno-centric approach is that we (wealthy people in high emitting countries calling the shots on climate change) are not only choosing climate change futures on behalf of ourselves, but we are making choices on behalf of others. Whilst we may well be able to adapt to early climate impacts by making marginal adjustments to our everyday living, by installing more air conditioning, moving away from low-lying coastlines, paying insurance companies to repair our homes after floods etc., that isn’t a luxury that most people in the world will have.

Furthermore, with globalised social media, those who will be most impacted by climate change are able to observe us continue as is, while they struggle to adapt, fund and cope with changes in their climates. Global social media lifts the lid on inequalities we are not prepared to address, as this paper highlights.

If big emitting countries, and the big emitters within those countries, are prepared to put in place stringent polices aiming to significantly reduce absolute fossil fuel consumption, even for a few years while establishing low-carbon infrastructure, there would be a much better chance of achieving the 2°C goal. While many industrialising nations will be trying to transition their own energy systems away from fossil fuels, and may well put more industrialised countries to shame in terms of the pace of change, they will still need space for economic growth, and therefore a near-term rise in emissions, to improve standards of well-being.

A meaningful, deep and an equally large body of work focusing on how to build systemic change around energy demand and material consumption is urgently needed. As long as IAMs dominate climate literature, a more balanced perspective of opportunities on the demand side will be overlooked, and time is running out.

Air travel is an example that brings this clearly into view. As academics, we are not prepared to look at the evidence that air travel is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise, with constraints on demand needed here more than anywhere (see also my paper All Adrift: Aviation, shipping and climate change policy, also published in Climate Policy). Yet I doubt the number of flights attributable to climate change research activity is declining. The reality of taking a carbon budget perspective, is that one flight taken by me this year, removes a chunk of the budget available for someone in a developing country to heat or cool their home. We are all part of the system – my behaviour here changes the climate impacts others experience elsewhere.

I have a background in climate science, and climate modelling, and I’m certainly not against modelling contributions, but it is essential that we are not blinded by precise quantification to the extent that we overlook the full possibility space. This is particularly important when basing decisions on models that combine the laws of physics with the ‘understandings’ (and certainly not laws) of economics. Not everything can be quantified in a way that is appropriate and useful for policymakers. Other ways of looking at the world are essential and need to contribute to the debate. If we don’t start to make a concerted effort to do that soon, we may well have missed our chance to demonstrate real intelligence in tackling climate change.

About the Author


Alice Larkin is Head of the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering and a Professor of Climate Science and Energy Policy in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester.


Fairness in the Eyes of Parties to the Paris Agreement. What Explains Divergences?

By Håkon Sælen (CICERO) and Vegard Tørstad (EUI, Florence) 

The question of how to differentiate efforts fairly has always been central and controversial in UN climate negotiations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement include different formulations and compromises relating to the distribution of efforts between parties.

In a new study published in Climate Policy, we show how disagreement over fairness principles prevailed in the discussions leading up to the Paris Agreement, and suggest an explanation for why the parties have been unable to reach consensus on the question of fairness.

Broadly, three different understandings of how mitigation burdens should be distributed fairly have been frequently invoked in debates in the climate negotiations:

  1. The principle of Responsibility demands that climate change should be solved by those who have caused it. In other words: the polluters must pay.
  2. The Capability principle emphasises that all those who have the capacity to mitigate climate change have an imperative to do so.
  3. The Rights (needs) principle suggests that an actor is either entitled by right to emit a given amount of greenhouse gases, or that it needs to be exempted from undertaking provisions.

There has been considerable disagreement among parties in the negotiations on how to interpret and weight these principles in discussions of burden sharing. In our research, we were interested in two questions:

  1. Which parties support each of the three fairness principles?
  2. What explains variation in fairness conceptions across countries?

To answer the first question, we used content analysis to count the frequency with which the principles appear in parties’ negotiation documents over a three-year period in the negotiations leading up to Paris. We found that fairness conceptions among key actors in the negotiations are polarised. On one extreme of the fairness spectrum are Australia, Canada, the United States, and Russia, who all refer to Capability in more than 75% of their fairness references. On the other are Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and certain Latin American countries, who devote the majority of their references to Responsibility.

This polarization of fairness conceptions is bad news for the climate negotiations, because agreements that are based on a common notion of fairness are largely thought to be more effective and durable than those that are not. It is analytically interesting, therefore, to understand what explains these large differences in parties’ fairness conceptions.

The literature often suggests that fairness conceptions in negotiations are determined by parties’ self-interest. However, our regression analysis of more than 160 parties in the climate negotiations showed that several factors often regarded as important to parties’ interests – such as historical emissions and capacity to pay – are not the primary determinants of fairness conceptions in these negotiations. Instead, whether a country is listed in ‘Annex I’ of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change–—that is, whether it is classified as a ‘developed’ country—is the single strongest predictor.

While the dominance of this variable may seem somewhat surprising, it is nevertheless compatible with an interest-based perspective. The binary Annex-division between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries was the basis for differentiating obligations under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. Only ‘developed’ were assigned individual obligations to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Therefore, countries classified as ‘developing’–—such as China and India–—benefit from the Annex scheme’s continuation, while ‘developed’ countries–—such as Australia, Russia and the United States–—from its removal.

In this light, it is notable that the Paris Agreement omits any reference to Annex I of the UNFCCC, using instead less clearly defined terms such as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ or ‘other’ countries. The lack of strict differentiation in the Paris Agreement suggests, firstly, that the Agreement is more favourable than previous agreements towards ‘developed’ countries, such as the United States, and less so towards rising economies such as China and India, which were previously classified as ‘developing’. It is therefore paradoxical that the United States is the only country that has decided to pull out, citing the unfairness of the Agreement as a reason.

Secondly, the lack of reference to the Annex is significant because it affects the fundamental tension over effort-sharing in the negotiations. By removing the Annexes, the dominant variable in explaining past divergences in fairness conceptions has been rendered less relevant. This development may improve parties’ chances for reaching compromise and agreement. However, ongoing negotiations on implementation of the Agreement have already encountered ‘roadblocks’ that partially derive from how the Agreement resolved the issue of differentiation between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. It therefore appears that negotiators will have to continue to deal with this issue, even though it may take on a new dynamic now that the Annex I division has less force. In doing so, our paper suggests that looking for pragmatic solutions tailored to each substantive agenda point will be more fruitful than discussions at the level of fairness principles aiming for one overarching solution.

The question of fairness in effort-sharing will continue to be relevant also in the future cycle established by the agreement. Parties are obliged to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years and are requested to justify their own contribution as ‘fair and ambitious’ – a process sometimes termed ‘self-differentiation’. What is more, a ‘global stocktake’ will assess collective progress every five years, ‘in light of equity’, and shall inform future NDCs. To achieve meaningful self-differentiation, the stocktake (as well as informal assessments by civil society) might be linked to parties’ own fairness conceptions as presented in their negotiation documents, such as NDCs and submissions. For this purpose, stakeholders may find overviews of fairness conceptions – like presented in our new paper – of use.

About the Authors


Håkon Sælen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO).



Vegard Tørstad is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute (EUI)