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UN Secretary-General urges countries to end ‘deadly addiction’ to coal

A woman cycles past wind turbines on a country road in Heijningen, The Netherlands. UnSplash/Les Corpographes

The world still has a “fighting chance” to limit global warming by ending dependence on coal, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told representatives from governments, local authorities and the private sector, meeting online on Tuesday. 

Addressing members of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, the UN chief stressed that keeping temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is achievable over this decade.   

“Once upon a time, coal brought cheap electricity to entire regions and vital jobs to communities. Those days are gone”, he said in a video message.  “Phasing out coal from the electricity sector is the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5 degree goal.” 

Ending a ‘deadly addiction’ 

Guterres underlined action in three areas to end what he called “the deadly addiction to coal.” 

He called for countries to cancel all coal projects in the pipeline, particularly the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) who are urged to do so by 2030. 

The UN chief also appealed for ending international financing for coal and providing greater support to developing countries transitioning to renewable energy. 

 “I also ask all multilateral and public banks — as well as investors in commercial banks or pension funds — to shift their investments now in the new economy of renewable energy”, he added. 

A just transition 

The switch from coal to cleaner energy sources must be just, he continued, as the impact of this transition will vary across regions. 

 “We have a collective and urgent responsibility to address the serious challenges that come with the speed and scale of the transition.  The needs of coal communities must be recognized, and concrete solutions must be provided at a very local level”, the Secretary-General said. 

In many parts of the world, this transition goes hand in hand with improving overall access to energy sources, said  Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All.

She told the conference that nearly 790 million people worldwide still do not have basic electricity, while 2.8 billion lack access to clean cooking fuels. 

“Right now. we’re at a crossroads where people do want to recover better, but they are looking for the best opportunities to do that”, Ms. Ogunbiyi said.  “And we’re emphasizing investments in sustainable energy to spur economic development, create new jobs and give opportunities to fulfill the full potential.” 

‘Encouraging’ trends: UN climate envoy

The UN Special Envoy on Climate and Finance underscored the key role the financial sector has in achieving the clean energy goal. 

Former Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, spoke of the “encouraging” trends he has witnessed over the past five years as the issue has become a top strategic priority for business.   

“It’s mainstreaming very fast, and it’s mainstreaming in a very positive direction where the search is for opportunity to accelerate”, he said. 

However, the UN envoy emphasized that private and public funding, including by multilateral development banks, must be aligned.

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