UNITED NATIONS — In May of this year, on a trip to low-lying endangered Pacific islands, the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, made one of his boldest calls yet to the world’s presidents and prime ministers.
Don’t build new coal plants after 2020, he said, and certainly don’t pay for them with taxpayer money.
On Monday, when he hosts the Climate Action Summit, designed to highlight countries that are stepping up their commitments to avert climate change, some of the world’s biggest champions of coal will be allowed to take the podium.
Among the first countries to appear at the summit meeting on Monday will be India. The vast majority of its electricity comes from burning coal, and it continues to develop new coal mines and new coal-fired power plants, often with state subsidies, even as it ramps up renewable energy.
Later in the morning comes Indonesia, the world’s biggest exporter of thermal coal.
China, the world’s coal juggernaut, will follow later in the day. So, too, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kenya — three countries where Chinese state-owned companies are building, or want to build, coal-fired power plants.
Mr. Guterres’s predicament is a case study in how hard it is for the world to quit coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel and still its main source of energy for producing electricity. Coal is plentiful and cheap, though not compared to solar and wind energy in many places around the world. Air pollution from coal mining and coal plants is dangerous to global public health.
Mr. Guterres, in a briefing with reporters on Friday, said that, in calling for a swift transition away from coal, he was well aware that he could only tell world leaders what he wanted them to do. “That doesn’t mean it will happen,” he said.
He added that he had spoken to Chinese officials about his concern over the role that Chinese companies and banks played in promoting coal both at home, where old coal plants are being phased out, and abroad.
A landmark report last October by a United Nations-backed scientific panel recommended that coal-fired power generation shrink by more than three-fourths by 2030 if the world as a whole is to keep emissions from rising to dangerous levels.
Coal is beginning to lose its luster in many countries, but not in the Asia-Pacific region. India, for instance, is eager to unearth the coal it has under the ground, and its government is seeking to privatize the coal-mining sector, including by inviting foreign bids for the first time, Reuters reported.
Worldwide, the global coal plant pipeline has shrunk by half over the last three years, but there are lots of new coal-fired power plants still in the planning stages — and if they go forward, emissions would rise sharply, a report issued last week by the German advocacy group Urgewald found.
The United Nations said it chose which countries to highlight at the summit based on one-page briefs they submitted about what new “positive steps” they were taking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help the world’s most vulnerable cope with the impact of climate change. All that submitted credible plans were told they would have a few minutes at the podium.
United Nations officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly said a few countries did not get podium time because their proposals did not represent new, concrete steps or because they were not prepared to send their presidents or prime ministers. Mr. Guterres said no country was “turned down.”
“We are not in a position to say, ‘You’re bad, you’re good,’” Mr. Guterres said. “This is not a name-and-shame exercise.”
Notably absent from the Monday summit will be other champions of coal: Australia, which recently authorized the opening of a vast new coal basin, and Japan, which continues to fund coal projects around the world. Also absent will be the United States, where President Trump has championed coal but where it is fast diminishing as a source of energy because of the boom in natural gas.
Still, offering the podium to many of these champions of coal directly contradicts one of the summit’s stated themes, presented in the draft agenda under the title “Powering the Future From Coal to Clean.” The presidents of Slovakia and Korea are scheduled to speak at that session.
The delicate politics of a coal exit is felt acutely by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Her government last week announced an ambitious plan to slash emissions, which also requires shuttering coal plants, most of them in the country’s east, in the next 20 years. Ms. Merkel is scheduled to be one of the first speakers in the day.
Other fossil fuel-producing countries will also get a shot at the podium on Monday, including Russia, the world’s third-largest oil producer after the United States and Saudi Arabia. Qatar, the world’s biggest gas exporter, is also scheduled to speak.
“We don’t make judgments about countries,” Mr. Guterres said. “We are not a court.”