Four reasons for not losing hope in a fast energy transition after COP26

By Fee Kirsch

The eighth in a series of articles titled 'the voice of young people', from the opinion formers of the future.  

As part of the Dutch Climate Youth movement and our We Are Tomorrow Global Partnership, I got to go to my first COP as an official observer. During these two weeks, I was surrounded by friends and partners from South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Chile, Mexico, Bangladesh, Nepal and many more countries. There were more than enough moments when we felt like we were losing. But counting up the small victories at COP26 helped me to remain hopeful.

Early on, my South African friends and I were excited by an unexpected pledge for their country. Even parts of South Africa’s delegation of negotiators had been kept in the dark. It is this and three other connected achievements at COP that give me hope despite and beyond the Glasgow Climate Pact. For the first time, there is real money from the Global North for a very specific phase-out for a country that’s energy supply is  almost 90 percent generated by coal plants. The South Africa Deal, titled the Just Energy Transition Partnership, supports a coal-phase out in South Africa with $8.5 (£6.2) billion in grants and loans from the EU, France, Germany, the UK and the US. Defying possible corruption, energy security issues and recent investment ties, this money will bring South Africa closer to a becoming the first coal-dependent emerging economy to succeed at a rapid phase-out. My hope is that this model is a start to more effective climate diplomacy with more foreign funded phase-outs in other countries.  Moving towards concrete partnerships and real financial commitment by developed countries could and should be a new avenue for green change. 

Trade measures can push big economies such as the US, China and India towards faster fossil fuel phase-outs. During COP, Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, warned that if these nations do not show more ambitious commitment,  drastic measures might be necessary. The EU has announced the possible introduction of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism applied to high-risk carbon leakage goods like iron and steel, cement, fertiliser, aluminium, and electricity generation. Such measures only make sense, if the EU is willing to help struggling countries in their transition to renewables.  The South Africa pledge is a good start.  This way the EU can increase pressure on big economies, especially the US and China, without seriously harming those without the means to restructure their energy and heavy industry market. Another reason why more economies should be supported in their phase-out and simultaneously nudged by financial incentives. 

COP26 tried to make foreign investment in fossil fuel a thing of the past. Or at least, it made everybody aware of the ridiculous amounts of money still spend on economically unviable options. The Dutch Prime minister told us during a dinner that he is completely on our side. The next day he refused to sign a pledge to stop investing in foreign fossil fuels. Right away, we set up a petition with another big environmental group. With more than 10,000 signatures and sufficient noise, we were glad to hear that three days later the pledge was signed. This is important because for example South Africa’s newest coal plant coal Medupi, the 8th biggest in the world, was opened only in August of this year. Its investments came from the same countries that are now financing a phase-out. With this new pledge, foreign investment will stop doing harm.

Lastly, COP highlighted that legal action taken against polluters is growing. It is now directed at governments and big companies all over the world. In a workshop, hosted during the People's Summit in Glasgow, we learned how to use the legal system to our advantage. My friends from South Africa tell me that just a few days ago, the South African energy minister has been sued for plans to build new coal plants. The next step will be to take a closer look at the billions of pounds paid in compensation that fossil fuel companies receive when they are asked to close down earlier. Because that is what will need to happen in South Africa and everywhere else.

So, despite the bad news about ‘phasing down’ rather than ‘phasing out’ coal and the lack of progress on a Loss and Damage fund for developing countries, my discussions at COP confirmed my belief that we have the solutions. All we need is the political will to put them into action. 

Published: 23 November 21

Back to news list