Cheap and abundant coal fuelled the industrialisation of Europe, North America and Asia. However, the price tag on coal has never reflected the external cost to society; coal combustion produces more than a third of today’s global CO2 emissions and is a major contributor to local adverse effects on the environment and public health, such as biodiversity loss and respiratory diseases.
Research has shown that phasing out coal yields substantial local environmental and health benefits that outweigh the direct policy costs due to shortening of the energy supply.
Phasing out coal is thus a no-regret strategy for most world regions, even when only accounting for domestic effects and neglecting the global benefits from slowing climate change.
The results suggest that these domestic effects potentially eliminate much of the free-rider problem caused by the discrepancy between the national burden of decarbonization costs and the internationally shared benefits of climate change impact mitigation.
This, combined with the profound effect of closing around half of the global CO2 emissions gap towards the 2 °C target, makes coal phase-out policies attractive candidates for the iterative strengthening of the nationally determined contributions pledged by the countries under the Paris Agreement.
Coal combustion is not only the single most important source of CO2, accounting for more than a third of global emissions but also a major contributor to detrimental effects on public health and biodiversity. Yet, globally phasing out coal remains one of the hardest political nuts to crack.
New computer simulations by an international team of researchers are now providing robust economic arguments for why it is worth the effort: For once, their simulations show that the world cannot stay below the 2 degrees limit if we continue to burn coal.
Second, the benefits of phasing out coal clearly outweigh the costs. Third, those benefits occur mostly locally and short-term, which make them useful for policymakers.