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Canada aligns with U.K. to fight global growth in coal-fired electricity

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is on a two-day trip to the U.K. and Ireland this week, pushing Canada as a global leader on climate change action.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada and the United Kingdom are aligning to help wean the world off coal at the same time as the United States is proposing to subsidize it.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced the partnership with Claire Perry, British minister of state for climate change, during a trip to Britain this week.

The International Energy Agency says the world's reliance on coal has to start diminishing by 2020 if there is any hope of meeting the Paris climate change accord goal of keeping global warming to less than two degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times.

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About 40 per cent of the world's power is generated from burning coal. In June, German environment organization Urgewald released a list of 850 new coal-fired plants on tap to be built in 62 nations. Thirty-three of those countries don't already burn much, if any, coal to make electricity and if all 850 plants are built, they will expand global coal power by 45 per cent.

Many of them are being backed by Chinese companies, despite China's commitment to scale back its coal plant ambitions at home.

About 10 per cent of Canada's electricity comes from coal now and Canada has committed that by 2030 any coal-powered plants have to have carbon capture and storage or close down.

In Britain, where coal has already diminished to less than five per cent of the country's power supply, that end is scheduled for 2025.

McKenna and Perry are hoping to convince others not to follow through with new coal plants and to phase out those that already exist.

McKenna told The Canadian Press on Thursday most countries want to choose renewables over coal, but it comes down to which one is cheaper. In some places renewables are less expensive but in many places they are not.

"That's just a financing thing and if we really want to help countries mitigate their emissions that's a hugely practical measure," she said. "They just need support to make the right decisions."

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International climate financing is a big part of that and McKenna spent time in London on Wednesday at a round table on that subject with major financial officials from pension funds, banks and financial companies.

The U.S. may be throwing a wrinkle into the plan however, as Energy Secretary Rick Perry pushes forward on a plan to subsidize coal plants to counteract competition from cheaper natural gas.

President Donald Trump promised to bring back coal and when market experts said it wasn't going to happen because coal wasn't worth it, his energy secretary last month ordered power companies to start subsidizing coal plants as long as they prove a 90-day supply of fuel is available.

McKenna didn't directly answer questions about whether the U.S. policy could hurt Canada's efforts to convince others to get off coal, but said she firmly believes markets will tell the story at the end of the day.

"Everyone knows we're moving away from coal," she said.

Still it adds further insult to the U.S.'s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord.

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American leadership, coupled with China's was crucial for the Paris accord in the first place, said Rob Bailey, research director of energy at London think tank Chatham House.

He called Canada and Britain's anti-coal alliance a good move as long as it results in action and not just rhetoric.

"The devil is in the details of all these things, but that is exactly the kind of thing they should be doing," said Bailey. "I think that's very positive."

He said he'd also like to see Canada push for a coal phase-out commitment as part of the G7 talks, which Canada will host next spring in Charlevoix, Que.

There is no one country that can take the U.S.'s place in terms of power and influence but if enough countries like Canada and the U.K. get together it can help counteract the impact of the U.S. pull back, said Bailey.

Video: BC Liberal and NDP leaders talk coal and trade
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