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The “end of coal is in sight,” declared a press release last week from the United Kingdom, host of the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.

That statement is true in some places, such as Canada – but elsewhere, seeing the end of coal requires magic binoculars that can peer decades into the future.

Ahead of Glasgow, there had been hopes of making momentous gains against the oldest and dirtiest of fossil fuels. But without agreement from China, India and the United States, coal won’t be banished to the slag heap of history any time soon.

Coal is responsible for more than one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. In China, the world’s largest emitter, it generates 60 per cent of the electricity. This fall’s global energy squeeze has led to a rush for coal, and another emissions surge.

A commitment signed last week in Glasgow by more than 40 national governments was dubbed the “coal to clean power transition.” But China and India, accounting for two-thirds of the world’s use of coal for electricity, aren’t among the signatories. Neither is the U.S.; President Joe Biden is promising all-clean power by 2035, but he didn’t sign because of domestic politics.

Campaigners against coal still saluted the deal as a major step forward. The inclusion of big coal users such as South Korea and Indonesia is important. But the agreement’s loose language – it talks about large economies getting off coal “in the 2030s,” rather than by 2030 – shows how politics is watering down climate urgency.

The momentum is nevertheless going in the right direction, and it’s hoped China and the U.S. will get on board. Many countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, have agreed to stop overseas funding of new coal power by the end of this year.

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For all that, what has come out of COP26 falls short. Climate gains have been made since the 2015 Paris Agreement, but the world isn’t doing enough to contain average temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, much less the goal of 1.5 C. Lack of progress on coal is a major reason.

In Canada, however, the end of coal is in sight – without need to squint or use binoculars. Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador have long been powered by clean hydro. Ontario, once a big user of coal, shut its last coal-fired plant in 2014. Today, its power mix – mostly zero-emission nuclear and hydro, plus some renewables and natural gas – is far cleaner than Germany or California. And Alberta, which aimed to get off coal by 2030, will achieve that in 2023.

Ontario and Alberta kicking the coal habit means a reduction in emissions equivalent to shutting down two-thirds of the oil sands.

Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are next. Nova Scotia wants Ottawa to help it ditch coal, by subsidizing its link-up with regional hydropower. Saskatchewan is on track to end coal power by 2030 – though like Alberta, it could move faster.

Alberta swapped coal for natural gas, and it did it so quickly, for economic reasons – the fuel is in abundance in Western Canada. But replacing coal with gas is only a half step. Natural gas is fossil methane – half as dirty as coal but far from clean.

Politicians and industry on the Prairies always talk about “energy” when they mean oil and gas. In powering past coal – and natural gas – there are obvious opportunities in solar and wind. Natural Resources Canada says the country’s best solar potential is on the Prairies. Outsiders see it: Denmark’s Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners is spending $700-million to build what will be Canada’s biggest solar farm in Alberta.

Moving off coal may be good for the climate, but it comes down to dollars and cents. Policies such as carbon pricing tilt against coal. Natural gas may be an attractive transitional alternative, but research last year from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy suggested that “building new renewables is now cheaper than operating existing fossil power plants.”

Canada has made major progress against coal – more than most of the world – and is poised to finish the job. As for the rest of the planet, while the Glasgow coal agreement is better than nothing, without China, India and the U.S., it’s not nearly enough. The end of coal is coming, but in much of the world, it’s still over the horizon.

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