No one quite knows what the latest United Nations climate-change conference is meant to be doing. About the current one, the 23rd in the annual series under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is something a little surreal, as reality catches up with decades of overheated rhetoric. The conference is being hosted by Fiji but is taking place in Bonn, the former West German capital. The first was held in 1995 in Berlin, the newly restored capital of a reunified Germany, and chaired by Angela Merkel, when she was Germany’s environment minister. Despite 22 years of climate negotiations, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to rise. Industrial emissions are on the rise again after three years of flat-lining. Human emissions of greenhouse gases rose in 2017 and are expected to rise again next year. The only thing that has been falling is U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, but you don’t here much talk of that in Bonn.
What the Bonn conference lacks is drama. There is no last-minute brinkmanship over whether there will be a climate treaty, as at Paris two years ago and at Copenhagen in 2009, or even over agreeing a path to one — the Bali road map (2007) and the Durban platform (2011) spring to mind. There’s no haggling between parties over how much they will cut their emissions. With the architecture of the Paris agreement based on nationally determined commitments, there doesn’t appear to be a need for another climate treaty.
The story of this climate conference should be Germany’s epic climate fail. Already the German government has admitted that it will overshoot its 2020 emissions-reduction target by 12.5 percent (an estimate since raised to 25 percent) and that it is likely to miss its 2040 target by an even larger amount. Apart from a few isolated protesters outside the conference hall, you wouldn’t know that a few miles from Bonn, a forest is being dug up to make way for a lignite-coal mine. Thanks to Germany’s reliance on lignite and its low heat-energy content, German power-station emissions increased by 17.2 million metric tons between 1999 and 2012. Over the same period, American power-station emissions cut theirs by nearly ten times that amount — 170.1 million tons.
Would Germany be put in the climate stocks and pelted with rotting fruit? Not a bit of it. Greenpeace activists awarded Germany its “Fossil of the Day” award and promise a “thunderclap” when Angela Merkel speaks tomorrow. Climate conferences are exercises in organized hypocrisy, and this one was hardly going to turn on the biggest climate hypocrite of all. Instead it would be the United States. While delegates spent their time drafting mind-numbing rules to monitor the Paris agreement, the U.S. delegation provided the focus of the drama at a side meeting yesterday evening, in a climate version of George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. It had been preceded by Democratic governors Jay Inslee (Wash.) and Kate Brown (Ore.) denouncing President Trump for the crime of climate denialism, pledging to phase out coal — it helps being in the Pacific Northwest, where rainfall is plentiful, which makes hydropower a natural — and boost renewables.
The U.S. team was led by Dave Banks, a special assistant to the president, and Francis Brooke, from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, and included a former Obama-administration official, Amos Hochstein, who now works for Tellurian, a natural-gas company. They came wanting to engage and seeking dialogue on the Trump administration’s view of how to meet the energy needs of developing countries. But all of the panelists implicitly accepted the premise of climate-mitigation policies: Carbon dioxide emissions are a problem and should be reduced. The meeting was an attempt to see if there might be some middle ground.
Banks began by acknowledging that what he had to say would be controversial, but only if the reality of continued growth of coal use was acknowledged. Some 1,600 coal plants are being planned, he said. Fossil fuels will continue to be used. Therefore the aim should be to make fossil-fuel power generation as clean and as efficient as possible. He referenced a September declaration by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) ministers on oil, coal, natural gas, and civilian nuclear energy to provide energy security for the region.
The argument for the U.S. to stay in the Paris agreement was that the America needed to be a voice at the table. What yesterday’s meeting showed is that being there doesn’t mean your voice is heard.
Criticizing multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, that ban financing of coal capacity, he argued that it prevents many developing nations from meeting their Paris commitments. Many of them are supporting the U.S. in its effort to get the ban on coal lifted, he said. Universal access to energy in developing nations doesn’t mean providing dribbles of high-cost electricity; it means having cheap, reliable power to build a middle class and enable their economies to industrialize. At a global scale, the math wouldn’t work without the next generation of clean coal technologies, Banks argued. The president wanted to use America’s energy advantage to promote competitive energy markets around the world. A revitalized civil nuclear program with “walk away” safety — plants engineered to slow down or shut down automatically in an emergency — was also part of the Trump administration’s “all of the above” approach.
By now, the sound of a demonstration outside the room was more than palpable. Something was up. As the next speaker was hitting his stride, a group at the back of the hall stood up and were joined by 90 percent of the room. “So you claim to be an American,” they sang to the music of “God Bless America.” “But we see right through your greed. It’s killing all across the world / For that coal money.” It went on for ten minutes. “They’d be good at karaoke,’ Banks quipped. Hochstein nailed what was wrongheaded about the protest. “If we really care about climate change, then we have to stop siloing ourselves into communities where we only talk to ourselves.”
It was a conversation the chino-clad protesters didn’t want. This wasn’t about American fossil-fuel billionaires but about how to realize the economic ambitions of developing countries. For their part, the protesters came across as entitled brats. Shutting down debate on energy and development at a U.N. climate conference will result in those conversations’ happening elsewhere. As Peabody Energy’s Holly Kulka said during her remarks, “It’s not if we use coal, but how.” Even nuclear wasn’t cut slack by the protesters. Lenka Kollar of NuScale Power, which is developing small modular reactors, pointed out that nuclear produces lower lifetime carbon dioxide emissions than solar does.
The questioning was aggressive and disrespectful. The panelists were called liars. Their data couldn’t be trusted. The final intervention came from a middle-aged woman who insisted that each of the panelists say whether he or she supported President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. It was awkward. It was rude. It was also stupid. At the outset, Banks had spoken of the president’s intention to withdraw unless the U.S. obtained better terms. A smart questioner would have asked what those might be.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that can go it alone. The argument for the U.S. to stay in the Paris agreement was that the America needed to be a voice at the table. What yesterday’s meeting showed is that being at the U.N. climate table doesn’t mean your voice is heard. The lesson from last night’s process is that if the U.S. wishes to shape the world’s energy future, it is well advised to give the U.N. climate process a miss.