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Too much tobacco at the cancer summit

Image: Frank Kehren - Tagebau Garzweiler II open pit 30 miles from Bonn

The arrival of President Trump’s official delegation to last week’s COP23 conference in Bonn was – in the immortal words of Billy Connolly – “as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.”  The presence of Holly Krutka, an executive from Peabody Energy (the biggest coal miner in the USA) among the delegation gave a flavour of what was to come.  As Damian Carrington reported for the Guardian:

“While Donald Trump’s special adviser on energy and environment, David Banks, said cutting emissions was a US priority, ‘energy security, economic prosperity are higher priorities’, he said. ‘The president has a responsibility to protect jobs and industry across the country.’”

To protests and heckling from the audience, Trump’s delegation went on to extoll the virtues of carbon capture– a technology that is prohibitively expensive in both energy and financial terms – and storage – a technology that doesn’t exist at scale yet – as the best means of lowering carbon emissions while maintaining jobs and industry.  This drew the response from billionaire former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg that:

“Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.”

So it is.  But suppose the conference organisers were also promoting tobacco at a cancer summit, and the only real difference was that the German tobacco was wrapped in a green package.  In that case, it is far from clear that it was the Trump delegation that was the only hypocrite.

Writing for Bloomberg (oh the irony) Jess Shankleman points out that:

“Coal emerged as the surprise winner from two weeks of international climate talks in Germany, with leaders of the host country and neighboring Poland joining Donald Trump in support of the dirtiest fossil fuel.”

While the UK – which had the foresight to use renewables to replace coal – joined Canada and an alliance of at least 25 other countries in committing to phase out coal by 2025; that luxury is not available to a Germany whose leader made the insane decision to use renewables to phase out domestic nuclear power (it still imports Belgian and French nuclear power) in 2011.  The result is that Germany still depends upon coal for more than 40 percent of its electricity generation – a fact that jars with its PR image as the poster child for European green energy.  All the more so because German power stations use lignite; the dirtiest form of coal.  As Shankleman explains:

“German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her country’s use of the fuel and the need to preserve jobs in the industry. Meanwhile Poland’s continued and extensive use of coal raised concerns that the next meeting, to be held in the nation’s mining heartland of Katowice, could thwart progress.  Poland… has said coal will be key to its energy security for decades. That worries those pushing for tougher pollution limits, who say the country’s stance — together with Trump’s pledge — could derail efforts agreed on in Paris two years ago to keep global warming since pre-industrial times to ‘well below’ 2 degrees Celsius.”

The politically beleaguered Merkel is not about to threaten Germany’s coal industry for fear of being thrown out of government.  Both her former centre-left SPD coalition partners and her extreme right AfD opponents have pledged to protect Germany’s coal industry in the event of their forming a government.  Nor is German industry likely to follow the USA, Australia and the UK along the road of rising energy bills (and thus manufacturing costs) resulting from the overuse of intermittent renewables.  Meanwhile Poland – which depends upon coal for four-fifths of its electricity – is unlikely to rock the coal boat next time around.

The reality, of course, is that people were upset with the Trump delegation less because of its open support for coal and more because it let the cat out of the bag on the priorities that every developed nation has been following for decades.  Sure, some countries are better at greenwash than others.  But David Banks spoke the truth to power when he pointed out that energy security and economic prosperity (which go hand in hand) are more important.  The countries that are phasing out coal are doing so because their remaining stocks are too expensive to recover and/or because cheaper energy sources – including renewables – are less disruptive to deploy.  Those that are clinging on to coal are doing so because the alternative is economic chaos and an increasing dependence upon (among other expensive imports) Mr Putin’s politically insecure supply of natural gas.

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