No date for coal phase out as G-7 environment ministers wrap meeting in Japan

A smokestack stands behind piles of coal at the coal-fired Onyx Kraftwerk Farge power plant on March 10, 2022 near Bremen, Germany.
David Hecker | Getty Images

Environment and energy ministers from G-7 countries wrapped two days of talks in northern Japan on Sunday without acting on Canada's push to set a timeline for phasing out coal-fired power plants.

In their 36-page communique after the meeting in Sapporo, the ministers restated their commitment to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest, and promised to work with other countries to end new coal-fired power projects that don't take steps to mitigate emissions.

"We call on and will work with other countries to end new unabated coal-fired power generation projects globally as soon as possible to accelerate the clean energy transition in a just manner," the document says.

Canada's Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told the Japanese public broadcaster last week that he hoped to see "strong language" in the final statement about the phaseout of coal.

The leaders instead reaffirmed they need to achieve a "predominantly decarbonized power sector" by 2035.

In a statement posted to Twitter Sunday, Guilbeault said he still welcomed the shared commitment between G7 countries to accelerate coal phaseout, but also called for greater urgency.

"For Canada, phasing out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030 has never been so urgent," the statement reads.

"Science is clear, countries, in particular G-7, must do more and on a faster timeline to address climate change and keep the Paris Agreement temperature goal in reach."

In the 2015 Paris accord, 196 countries, including Canada, agreed to set national targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions en route to preventing the planet from warming up more than two degrees Celsius on average compared with pre-industrial levels.

Guilbeault has advocated for consensus on phasing out coal by 2030, as Canada has promised to do, but G7 environment ministers have struggled to find common ground on the issue as countries like Japan continue to rely on coal-powered electricity.

Japan advocated instead for its own natural strategy that includes the use of what the country calls "clean coal," where the emissions are captured.

A report released earlier this month by the Global Energy Monitor — a group that tracks global energy projects — found G-7 countries account for 15% of the world's operating coal capacity.

Last year the global capacity to burn coal for power grew, though that was mainly because so many new plants opened in China that it offset efforts to shut them down in other parts of the world, the report said.

"The truth is, coal is the number one low-hanging fruit that needs to be replaced sooner than later," said Andrew Weaver, a climate-change policy researcher and professor at the University of Victoria.

Weaver, who formerly led British Columbia's Green Party, criticized the G-7 for failing to deliver strict timelines to phase out coal-powered electricity and instead pointed to its 2050 net-zero pledge.

"Not a single person at that table will be able to be held accountable for not making that target, because it's way beyond their political lifetimes, which is why it's utterly meaningless," he said.

While no global deadlines have been set, Debora VanNijnatten, a political scientist at Wilfred Laurier University, said individual countries have committed to their own domestic timelines to phase out coal.

"I think more important is watching what is happening in individual countries as they battle serious constraints, VanNijnatten said Sunday.

The Sapporo talks also yielded pledges to cooperate on wise and equitable environmental energy, water, farm and marine policies.

"I believe that we were able to demonstrate to the international community that our commitment to climate change and environmental issues is unwavering, even in the context of the situation in Ukraine," Akihiro Nishimura, Japan's environment minister, said after the talks ended.

The ministers also committed to ending plastic pollution, aiming to take new plastic pollution to zero by 2040 as part of their priorities ahead of the G-7 leaders' summit in Hiroshima in May.