Sustainability Blog

Coal Coalition Cop-out at COP26

By Apurva Gosalia - Nov 19, 2021

China, India, the U.S. and Japan are home to 40% of the global population but to 80% of the world’s coal-fired electricity generation, and yet they still did not join the COP26 pledge to reduce reliance on this controversial fossil fuel to power their economies. Although this ratio is alarming, it is not yet a true Pareto distribution.

Distribution Deal

In 1896, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that 80% of his country’s land was owned by 20% of its population. When he looked at the land ownership distribution in other countries, he noticed the same thing.

Since Pareto made his observation, others have noticed the 80/20 distribution applies in other areas, too: 80% of global wealth in the hands of 20% of the world’s population; 80% of software bugs are caused by 20% of program modules; students learn 80% of the required learning with 20% of the effort; 20% of retail products account for 80% of profits, and those products are bought by 20% of the customers; and 80% of video rental stores’ profit in the late 1980s came from 20% of the titles. The list goes on.

The 80/20 distribution applies to the two major crises affecting us today, and will continue to do so in the future – 20% of people with COVID-19 are responsible for 80% of local infections, and on a country basis, the top 20 emitters of carbon dioxide are responsible for around 80% of total global emissions.

The Pareto distribution not only describes the relationships between outcomes (the 80%) and the causes (the 20%), but also gives us a handy tool to focus efforts where they have the greatest overall impact. Returning to the distribution of emissions, by applying the Pareto principle, lawmakers can target and streamline policy to reduce emissions if they look at those who emit the most.

Fossil Fuels in the Firing Line

Although China, India, the U.S. and Japan baulked at the coal pledge, the summit ended on Nov. 13, 2021, with the 197 participating countries agreeing to a new deal called the Glasgow Climate Pact. The pact aims at staving off dangerous climate change and explicitly mentions coal, which is the single biggest contributor to climate change.

Previous COP agreements have not mentioned coal, oil or gas, or even fossil fuels in general, as a driver of climate change. This made the new pact the first ever climate deal to explicitly plan reductions on unabated coal power.

Climate Action Tracker summarized the results at COP26 as follows: the global temperature will rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century with current policies; by 2.4 C if only the pledges for 2030 are implemented; by 2.1 C if the long-term targets are also achieved; and by 1.8 C if all the announced targets are fully achieved.

Rather than make agreements and pledges that include every single nation, from the likes of Russia to a Micronesian island state, would it have been better to concentrate the focus of change on just the 20%?

Anyway, more than 140 countries at COP26 pledged to reach net-zero emissions. This group of countries includes 90% of global GDP, which is a much better ratio and hopefully enough to Paretoour way out of the climate crisis.


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