Op-ed: The most ambitious climate action plan ever attempted, according to Michael Bloomberg

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As heads of state gather in Glasgow, Scotland for a climate summit, much of the news will focus on nations setting carbon-reduction goals for decades down the road — long after those making the promises will be out of office.

Setting ambitious long-term goals is good, but not good enough. Because more important than any promise countries make about 2050 is what they do between now and 2030. And what’s most important is what they do over the next few years about the biggest problem of all: coal.

The single greatest cause of climate change is burning coal. More than any other pollutant, coal has the power to defeat us in the battle to stop temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels.

We have every reason to act with urgency. Coal pollution poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink, killing and sickening millions of people every year.

There are also good financial reasons to act. New clean power projects are now cheaper than running existing coal plants in half of the world. Wind and solar power mean cheaper electricity bills for consumers. Switching to clean energy also reduces the economic risk to industries and communities, as they face increasingly severe — and expensive — floods, fires, storms, and droughts.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 13:  Michael Bloomberg attends an intimate dinner hosted by Michael Bloomberg, Bettina Korek and Hans Ulrich Obrist as The Serpentine Gallery celebrates Frieze 2021 at Serpentine North on October 13, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)

Today, Bloomberg Philanthropies is launching a major new initiative to move the world beyond coal to clean energy. Our goal is to close a quarter of the world’s nearly 2,500 coal plants — and cancel all 500-plus proposed coal plants — by 2025.

We know that stopping every proposed coal plant may be an impossible task, but we have a track record of achieving results not imagined possible.

A decade ago, our foundation joined forces with the Sierra Club in a first-of-its-kind effort. Our goal was to retire one-third of U.S. coal plants by 2020. We met that goal six years early, so we raised it. And met it again. And raised it again. To date, we have retired two of every three U.S. coal plants, and we are on the fast track to retiring them all by the end of this decade — something that, when we started, no one believed was even in the realm of possibility.

Four years ago, we expanded the effort to Europe, where we have helped close half of all coal plants there, and inspiring the launch of Beyond Coal campaigns in Australia, South Korea, and Japan. Now, we are expanding our work further, to an additional 25 developing countries. We will prioritize countries where coal power is threatening to grow, and we will focus on helping these countries develop clean energy that frees them from building coal plants.

If we succeed, we will reduce carbon emissions by an amount larger than the current annual emissions released by the EU. Nothing of this magnitude has ever been attempted before, but given the stakes, we cannot do less.

An elderly woman looks at the Jaenschwalde lignite coal-fired power plant, which is among the biggest single emitters of CO2 in Europe, on October 29, 2021 in Peitz, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
An elderly woman looks at the Jaenschwalde lignite coal-fired power plant, which is among the biggest single emitters of CO2 in Europe, on October 29, 2021 in Peitz, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Stopping coal should be the world’s number one climate priority. The biggest obstacle is properly aligning the economic incentives. Right now, many nations heavily subsidize fossil fuels over renewable power, which puts clean energy at a market disadvantage. We will work with government leaders and local advocates to end these subsidies and put in place policies that help spur private investment in renewables.

At the same time, while clean energy is cheaper over the long run than coal power, it can have larger upfront capital costs to build, and can be more complicated to finance and build. To address these barriers, it is critical for the U.S., Europe, and others to provide more financial support and technical assistance. But foundations can help a great deal, too.

For example, in both India and Vietnam, Bloomberg Philanthropies is teaming up with Goldman Sachs and the Asian Development Bank to reduce the costs of borrowing for companies that seek to build clean power, in partnership with each government. We aim to unlock up to $500 million in financing for clean energy projects. Our experience there will help us undertake similar projects with other nations.

Governments do not have to choose between the economy and the environment. Fighting climate change goes hand-in-hand with improving health, spurring economic growth, and raising living standards. But our success hinges largely on coal, and on what we do over the next few years. It is imperative that governments and businesses place greater urgency on the clean energy transition — and do more, faster, together.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Ambition and Solutions.

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