Editor’s Note: Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP and served as mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013. He is currently serving as WHO global ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries and as UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ special envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions. Frans Timmermans is the executive vice president of the European Commission responsible for the European Green Deal and leading EU climate diplomacy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
The increasing urgency that countries are showing in the fight against climate change is welcome news, but it is bumping up against a hard reality: Much of the world is still using and investing in coal-fired power plants, one of the biggest drivers of greenhouse gas emissions.
If we want to tackle climate change and ensure people’s health and well-being, we have to accelerate our move away from coal.
Ending our dependence on coal will save lives. Air pollution — to which coal contributes significantly — causes 400,000 premature deaths a year in the EU alone, and 5% to 10% of all annual premature deaths in the United States. Coal dependence is also a drag on economic growth and increasingly costly for consumers. In fact, the cost of renewable power continues to fall, and in some regions, solar is one of the cheapest forms of power.
While the phase-out of coal is picking up speed, coal still produces close to 40% of global electricity. And that number could rise further in some countries, since the short-term costs of coal power can still be lower than transitioning to green energy. One important way to shift this dynamic is to end the tax breaks, government investment, overseas aid and subsidies — some of which the public is paying — that keep coal on life support.
The United States and the European Union can be leaders in this shift. Earlier this year, the EU announced its support for an end to fossil fuel subsidies globally. And the European Investment Bank has already said that it will no longer fund any fossil fuel energy projects after this year, directing all of its work toward clean energy innovation. Today, 15 European countries have committed to completely phasing out coal power, and three have already become coal power-free.
The United States has made big strides as well. In the last decade, 60% of US coal plants have closed, and coal’s share of US electricity generation fell from 46% in 2010 to an estimated 20% in 2019. Coal plant closures have continued to accelerate because economics clearly favor clean energy, and the public increasingly demands power sources that don’t poison our air and threaten our health. President Biden has also indicated that he intends to end overseas development aid for fossil fuel projects.
But more can and must be done.
Other countries, such as China, continue to finance many coal projects overseas. To convince them to stop, the EU and the United States must lead by example. Together, they can provide more support to regions in Africa and Latin America, which would enable countries there to leapfrog over outdated fossil fuel projects and use clean power to bring universal access to electricity instead.
The EU and the United States should also provide more support for communities and regional economies that depend on jobs in fossil fuel industries, in particular coal, and are trying to transition workers into new industries and roles. The EU’s Just Transition Fund is working to do that in member states and in coal regions beyond its borders in the Western Balkans and Ukraine. Bloomberg Philanthropies similarly has supported work in coal regions in the EU and in the United States, including job training and providing opportunities in clean energy industries. The more we do to help coal regions, the less communities will suffer, and the more political support there will be to step away from coal toward a thriving green business model.
Making the transition to a green economy will require major new investments, but it will also lead to more new jobs, better health and stronger, more sustainable economic growth. On the other hand, the costs of non-action, often ignored, are much higher: Continued reliance on coal will lead to more toxic pollution, more death and disease, more extinction and biodiversity loss, more economic damage from extreme and unpredictable weather and more lost ground in the fight against the climate crisis. To stop such catastrophic results, and to improve people’s health and well-being, it’s imperative that the EU and US lead a united front in moving the world beyond coal — not for the sake of the planet, but for the sake of humanity.