Catherine McKenna.

At climate talks, Canada steps up while the US steps down

During this week’s UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, Canada announced its plan to completely phase out the use of coal in power plants. This move runs in stark opposition to the US’ current official stance on coal, as the Trump administration pursues a revival of the industry.

Catherine McKenna.

Canadian Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is currently attending the COP23 talks in Bonn, Germany, trying to convince the world to phase out coal power plants.
Image credits Chatham House / Imgur.

Two years ago, political leaders gathered at COP21, the annual UN climate change talks, were making history by effectively jump-starting the Paris Agreement. A year later, enough countries around the world had willingly signed themselves and their environmental goals under the agreement for it to enter into force. Things were looking up. For once, all the world was united under a common goal, and that felt amazing.

This year, however, could not have been farther from that sentiment. The Trump administration has moved again and again in favor of the very industries and fuels everyone else is trying to move away from. It’s also repeatedly threatened to leave the Paris Agreement, and in June that threat was carried out.

Disheartening as the US’ exit may be, world leaders aren’t giving up on the Paris Agreement. This year’s talks are taking place in Bonn, Germany, aiming to settle on the rules for how the accord should be implemented, how carbon will be measured, and how to keep countries accountable for their promised emission cuts.

On this backdrop, the withdrawal of the world’s largest economy is an opportunity for other countries to step up to the plate and take the initiative. Canada and the UK, two countries that committed to phasing out coal in the energy sector by 2030 and 2025 respectively, are already doing so.

“Canada is committed to phasing out coal. We’ve created an alliance with the U.K., we’re going to get other countries around the world to help support moving forward on a coal phase-out. Coal is not only the most polluting fossil fuel but it’s also terrible for health,” said Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna before flying to Germany for the talks.

“If the U.S. is going to step back, we’ve said we’re going to step up, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”

McKenna and her British counterpart Claire Perry, minister of state for climate change and industry, are making a common front against coal as a power source. Coal fuels around 40% of the world’s energy production (10% in Canada) and accounts for over 40% of global CO2 emissions — emissions that we could slash with ease given the strides green energy tech has been making recently.

So the duo is launching a joint campaign, calling on other countries to promise not to build any more unabated coal-fired plants and phase out those already in use. Unabated plants are the ones that don’t incorporate carbon capture or storage mechanisms that can keep emissions from reaching the atmosphere. McKenna further told The Canadian Press that the Canadian government wants to help developing countries reduce their reliance on coal, but no funds have so far been earmarked for the task.

Since Canada and the UK announced their coal phase-out campaign last month, Italy and the Netherlands have also joined. France has also set a coal phase-out target by 2025.

Coal in the south

The anti-coal initiative comes in direct conflict with those of the Trump administration. Last month, EPA’s chief Scott Pruit gutted the Clean Power Plan, a bill requiring states to cut emissions based on energy consumption and offering incentives for renewable power and energy efficiency, saying the “war on coal is over”. On Monday, US officials hosted an event as part of the Bonn talks where they basically said that as the world won’t be rid of coal overnight, we consider nuclear power and “clean coal” as ways to limit emissions. Protesters held up the event and managed to shut it down for 10 minutes with a flash mob song.

Still, despite the current administration’s best efforts, the US isn’t in the coal basked just yet. On Monday, 15 US governors joined Canada and Mexico in signing an agreement focusing on clean transportation, carbon pricing, and a reduction of coal-fired electricity.

“Let’s be clear, there are many different versions of the United States that are here,” McKenna told CBC News from Bonn.

The two countries are also trying to get China and India involved in the coal phase-out. Should their efforts prove successful, it would be a major step forward. De-coupling India’s growing economy from coal would save us a big headache in the future. China has imposed itself as one of the major players in clean energy lately. The two would probably not agree to an immediate phase-out of coal but any steps in this direction would be a great boost for global efforts to limit emissions.

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