U.N. chief urges end to coal financing to spur clean energy shift

LONDON (Reuters) - United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries on Thursday to stop financing coal and pledge not to build new coal-fired power plants to enable a shift to clean energy.

FILE PHOTO: Steam rises from the cooling towers of the lignite power plant complex of German energy supplier and utility RWE in Neurath, north-west of Cologne, Germany, February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

He spoke at a virtual clean energy transition summit of 40 countries representing 80% of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. They discussed steps to buoy economies, cut emissions and make energy systems more resilient to climate change.

As countries seek to revive their economies from the slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and investors have called for recovery packages to focus in part on green stimulus.

The European Union and South Korea have already pledged environmentally-minded recovery programmes. But Guterres said some countries have also used economic packages to support fossil fuel companies that were already struggling financially, and others have chosen to jump-start coal-fired power plants.

“Coal has no place in COVID-19 recovery plans,” Guterres said in a videolink speech to the summit, hosted by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

He said the business case for renewables was better than for coal in nearly every market and that green jobs and sustainable growth were crucial. Costs for renewables such as wind and solar have plummeted over the last decade.

China, the world’s second-largest economy and biggest coal producer, said it was committed to a clean and efficient low-carbon development of the energy sector.

“We are going to make great efforts to develop hydro, wind and solar,” Zhang Jinhua, director of China’s National Energy Administration, told the virtual meeting.

Although coal use has declined in regions including Europe and the United States, and many investors have pulled out of coal financing, it has been growing in other parts of the world as emerging economies say coal is needed for growth.

U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in prepared remarks that he opposes any ban on fuels that produce emissions.

“Renewables by themselves cannot ensure the reliable flow of electricity in any nation,” he said. “Simply stated, every nation can benefit from a wider mix of fuels to keep its grid running.”

Brouillette said innovation can boost generation from renewable power and reduce emissions from fossil fuels. “If an energy source isn’t as clean, it seeks to make it cleaner and ultimately fully clean,” he said.


A study made public last month found China has nearly 250 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power under development, more than the United States’ entire coal capacity.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, are also investing in coal plants.

Japan, which relies on coal for more than a third of its power generation, said on Thursday it will tighten state-backed financing criteria for overseas coal-fired power plants, following criticism over its support for the dirtiest fossil fuel.

Governments have agreed to curb global warming to safer levels to avoid catastrophic climate change and to achieve a net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050.

“Global energy demand has declined sharply this year and so did emissions (due to coronavirus-related lockdowns). But whether that decline will rebound or not we do not know. Ministers will decide through the policies they put in place,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said.

An international climate conference (COP26), at which countries need to submit more ambitious emissions-cut plans, has been postponed until November next year.

Britain, which is hosting the conference, said it represents a “landmark moment” following on from the 2015 Paris Agreement, a global climate pact to curb emissions.

“We must reach a negotiated outcome there which finalises the Paris Agreement and countries come forward with more ambition. Current and future generations deserve nothing less,” said Alok Sharma, Britain’s business and energy minister, who will serve as the president of the climate conference.

Reporting by Nina Chestney and Matthew Green; additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Edmund Blair, Mark Heinrich, Barbara Lewis and Paul Simao