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America's Mortifying Performance at the Bonn Climate Talks

On Monday, the U.S. delegation held a panel to push nuclear and coal. The rest of the world rolled its eyes.
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Climate change activists, including one dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump, march to demonstrate against coal energy on November 4th, 2017, in Bonn, Germany.

Climate change activists, including one dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump, march to demonstrate against coal energy on November 4th, 2017, in Bonn, Germany.

The United States delegation held a side event at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn on Monday, an affair run by fossil-fuel and nuclear-industry boosters that reprised the same tune heard at the G7 and G20 summits this summer: According to the U.S., using clean coal and nuclear energy is the only way to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Making it clear that U.S. climate policy is under direct control of the White House, the U.S. team was led by David Banks, a presidential adviser for international energy and environment, whose remarks promoted a climate realpolitik that clashes with the rest of the world's vision for a sustainable future and reinforces the U.S. as a global outcast—the only nation in world that might actually reject the Paris Agreement.

As Banks began talking about clean coal Monday evening, several dozen people suddenly stood and started singing a coordinated protest song to the tune of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," re-booted with anti-coal lyrics—a performance that delayed the presentation by about five minutes.

It's naive of the protesters, or anyone else, to think that renewables alone can meet the growing energy demands of the developing world, according to the U.S. panel. Banks said that the International Energy Administration projects a 30 percent growth in energy demand in developing countries by 2030. Currently, about 1,600 new coal-fired power plants are being built or planned in 60 countries.

And while the Paris Agreement eyes a near-total phaseout of coal by mid-century, nearly 20 countries included clean coal development as part of their official pledges under the agreement, Banks said. Across Europe, more than 700 coal-fired power plants are still in operation; in the U.S., that number is more than 7,600.

Even Germany, one of the world leaders in the transition to renewable energy, is struggling to finalize a coal phaseout plan, and in the latest global evaluation of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, the Global Carbon Project announced that big jump in coal use in China will likely boost global carbon emissions by as much as 3 percent in 2017.

In other words, the world will still be burning a lot coal in the next few decades, and it's in everyone's best interest to "make sure that fossil fuels are as clean and efficient as possible," Banks said.

In reality, the global energy equation is much more dynamic than the official U.S. account is willing to acknowledge. Just in the past 12 months, about seven gigawatts of proposed and planned coal-power capacity has been canceled, according to E3G, a London-based clean energy think tank.

The global trend away from coal is so clear that most of the delegates at COP23 couldn't take the U.S. presentation seriously. A day before the event, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, president of the COP23 summit, said in a press conference, "There is really no need to talk about coal because we all know what coal does with regard to climate change."

At the U.S. panel, Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association, claimed that clean coal is needed to reach many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including universal access to energy, zero hunger, and zero poverty. The organization, which includes public and private energy companies as well as government agencies, has outlined an international financing plan for funding technology to capture coal emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"We don't need regulatory requirements, we don't need the Paris plan or the Clean Power Plan," Worthington said. "Governments at the local and state level want us to reduce emissions, shareholders want us to reduce emissions, our customers want us to reduce emissions,” he said.

Worthington also drew on the Trump administration's demagogic notion of an ongoing "war on coal," charging that international development banks have an "anti-fossil bias" that blocks investments for financing coal plants in poor countries, potentially at the expense of public safety.

The U.S. side event also included pitches for liquid natural gas exports from the U.S. to developing countries as a bridge fuel to help power the shift to renewable energy, as well as for small-scale modular nuclear reactors that can serve a similar purpose.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee was quoted on Twitter as saying that the U.S. event was a "sideshow," and most international delegates spent the day and evening meeting with delegates of a sub-national U.S. delegation, including former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke at a summit of local and regional leaders advocating for sub-national climate action.