More than 40 countries pledged to phase out construction of new coal fired power plants domestically and internationally at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, but some of the world’s largest emitters—China, India, Japan and the U.S.—did not sign the pledge, potentially weakening the global effort to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While countries that signed on to the pledge include major CO2 emitters such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile, the separate draft proposal for the overall climate agreement released Nov. 12 by COP President Alok Sharma makes some concessions to countries that objected to stronger language and calls for the phase-out of “unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.”

In 2020, China, India, the U.S. and Japan accounted for more than 75% of coal capacity globally, with China responsible for about 50% of that total, according to Effuah Alleyne, senior oil and gas analyst at Global Data. “While Vietnam, Indonesia and G7 members such as Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK are among those that pledge support [for eliminating new coal projects], they represent a minor driver for significant change,” he says. 

Some analysts, such as Jennifer Layke, World Resource Institute Energy Program global director, suggest that the Biden administration may have been hamstrung by U.S. lawmakers’ removal from the $2 trillion reconciliation package one month prior to COP26, of the Clean Energy Performance Program (CEPP), the key enforcement mechanism in the President's climate policy.

The measure would have used the carrot and stick approach to effect change—providing incentives to energy utilities that switched from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and fining those that did not make the switch. Congressional negotiators removed the $150-billion program from the spending bill because of objections from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Jennifer Layke, the World Resource Institute’s Energy Program global director, said in a Nov. 4 press briefing that the absence of a strong federal policy like the CEPP made it more difficult for the U.S. to commit to eliminating coal. But “in looking at what we’ve done state by state, we have made significant shifts in the last decade.”

Energy companies over the past decade have been shifting away from coal projects largely as a result of market forces.

In 2018, Xcel Energy pledged to provide carbon-neutral electricity by 2050 and Southern Company announced on its latest earnings call Nov. 4 that it will shutter about 55% of its coal fleet by the end of the decade as the company shifts to a net-zero energy mix.