Ex-Unilever CEO Takes Swipe at Australia, Says It Would Be ‘Stupid' Not to Phase Out Coal

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  • On COP26, Paul Polman tells CNBC it was "disappointing that we had to water down the wording on coal to … phase down."
  • According to the International Energy Agency, coal's share of global electricity generation in 2019 was 36.7%.

The former CEO of consumer goods giant Unilever has told CNBC it was "disappointing" that the Glasgow Climate Pact's language on coal was watered down, but expressed hope that it will be firmed up at the COP27 and COP28 summits in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.  

Speaking to CNBC's Dan Murphy last week at the Adipec energy industry forum in Abu Dhabi, Paul Polman appeared philosophical about the deal agreed at COP26, in which India and China insisted on a last-minute change of fossil fuel language — from a "phase out" of coal to a "phase down."

It was "disappointing that we had to water down the wording on coal to … phase down," he said, "But I believe that the direction again once more is set and that we will accelerate."

"If that is the compromise in the interim, hopefully in Egypt or in Abu Dhabi we'll have phase out — there's no other choice."

"We have to, it would be stupid not to," Polman went on to state, before taking aim at Australia, a country where coal still plays an important role.  

"Australia has to realize that as well: 56% coal, still, in that country, is unsustainable," he said. "One of the highest emissions per capita in the world, it's unsustainable."

"And for the prime minister to run around, Scott Morrison, to say the free market will take care of that, it's just beyond naive."

"And I think the rest of the world will not let that happen anymore," Polman, who is the co-founder and co-chair of the social venture Imagine, said. "We're all in the same boat: it's called planet Earth."

According to figures from the Australian government, fossil fuels accounted for 76% of total electricity generation in 2020, with coal's share coming in at 54%, gas at 20% and oil at 2%. In 2019, coal was responsible for 56% of total electricity generation in Australia.

The Australian prime minister's office did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC regarding Polman's remarks.

Last Monday, Morrison was asked if he agreed that COP26 had sounded the death knell for coal, a reference to comments made by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the summit had wrapped up.

"No," he replied. "I don't believe it did, and for all of those who are working in that industry in Australia, they'll continue to be working in that industry for decades to come."

"Because there will be a transition that will occur over a long period of time and I make no apologies for Australia standing up for our national interests, whether they be our security interests or our economic interests."

Morrison, who was speaking to reporters back in Australia, went on to say that "we have a balanced plan to achieve net zero by 2050."

"But we're not going to make rural and regional Australians pay for that, we're going to do this in a balanced way, focusing on the technological advances that we know will actually see us solve this problem."

"We're not going to tax Australians do to that, we're not going to legislate them and regulate them and force them to do things," he said.

"I think Australians have had a gutful of governments telling them what to do over the last couple of years," he said, "and our approach going forward to secure our economic recovery is not tell businesses what to do, not tell customers what to do. Our plan is to ensure that they can take the lead, that their choices take the lead."

According to the International Energy Agency, coal's share of global electricity generation in 2019 was 36.7%.

While it remains an important source of electricity, coal has a substantial effect on the environment and the U.S. Energy Information Administration lists a range of emissions from coal combustion. These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides.

Elsewhere, Greenpeace has described coal as "the dirtiest, most polluting way of producing energy."

"When burnt, it releases more carbon dioxide than oil or gas, so it's a big problem when it comes to climate change," the environmental group adds.

"Coal also produces toxic elements like mercury and arsenic, and small particles of soot which contribute to air pollution."

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