The battle to end coal-burning, backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, is expanding out of the US and around the world in its bid to reduce the global warming threat posed by the most polluting fossil fuel.
Bloomberg, a UN special envoy on climate change and former mayor of New York City, has funded a $164m campaign in the US since 2010, during which time more than half the nation’s coal-fired power plants have been closed.
On Thursday, he announced a $50m (£38m) plan to expand the programme into Europe and then the rest of the world. The money will support grassroots campaigns, research on the health impacts of coal and legal action against coal plants that are breaking pollution rules.
Bloomberg is attending the global climate change summit in Bonn, Germany, where he is leading a group of states, cities, and businesses pledging action in the US despite President Donald Trump’s opposition.
Coal burning still accounts for about 20% of all of the European Union’s carbon emissions, with Germany and Poland by far the biggest polluters. Bloomberg’s initiative aims to speed up the phase-out of coal by capitalizing on the fast falling costs of renewable energy alternatives and rising concerns about air pollution.
Where the action is being taken, such as in the UK, coal is declining rapidly. Until recently, the UK was Europe’s third-biggest coal polluter, with the fuel providing 40% of the nation’s electricity, but this has fallen to 2% in just five years. In Germany, coal emissions have only been falling slowly, though on Tuesday the city of Munich voted to close its coal-powered plant 13 years early.
“Coal is the single biggest polluter,” Bloomberg told the Guardian. “If you could just replace coal with any other fuel, you would make an enormous difference in the outlook for climate change.”
He said rising concerns over air pollution, which causes millions of premature deaths every year around the world, is an even more immediate driver for phasing out coal: “If you live downstream of a coal-fired power plant your life expectancy is significantly shorter. This initiative will help to speed progress and save many lives.”
Bloomberg argues that the mass closure of coal plants in the US did not result from government action, but from civil society advocacy building on the falling costs of renewable energy: “Sometimes a little push will get you over, perhaps from a neighbour saying ‘I don’t want to breathe that stuff anymore’.”
In October, Bloomberg said: “The war on coal … was started and continues to be led by communities who are tired of having their air and water poisoned when there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives available.”
In Europe, some of the new funding will be administered by the European Climate Foundation, which is led by Laurence Tubiana, who was France’s climate change ambassador when the landmark Paris deal was signed in 2015. “Europe still relies significantly on coal for power generation, but the rapid pace of development in cheap renewables offers a great opportunity,” she said. “Together with Bloomberg Philanthropies, we can help change the course of history and drive Europe’s shift to a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous future.”
The UK’s climate change minister Claire Perry welcomed the new initiative: “The UK was one of the first countries in the world to commit to phasing out unabated coal-fired power generation by 2025 and we encourage other nations to follow our lead. Reducing global coal consumption is a vital part of reaching our climate goals.”
Jonathan Marshall, at the UK’s Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “Tackling coal across Europe is essential if we are going to keep global warming below dangerous levels. But there are some clear laggards: Germany, Poland, and Turkey.”
“Public opinion is only moving in one direction and coupled with market conditions that see coal pushed to the margins, the lifetime of the black stuff is surely limited,” he said.
Bloomberg is now looking for partners to push the coal campaign into Asia, where most coal is burned and the coal industry hopes it might see growth: “I hope to expand it in the near future.”
But he rejected arguments that coal plants are the fastest and most cost-effective way to bring electricity to the many millions of people around the world who do not have it: “Number one, it is not the cheapest or quickest, and number two, how many people are you going to kill [with air pollution]?”