The villain of this year’s UN climate talks hasn’t been US President Donald Trump, as many expected, instead coal took centre stage.
The fortnight-long conference in Bonn was expected to be dominated by the president’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accord, but talks focused instead on weaning the world’s dependence on coal.
The conference culminated in 20 countries – including New Zealand, the UK and Canada – creating a new Powering Past Coal alliance, which promises to build no more coal power plants and phase out traditional ones by 2030.
They hope to have 50 members by next year’s COP, to be held in December in coal-hungry Poland.
Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg says it’s a club Australia won’t be joining.
However, environmental groups say the new alliance sends a loud and clear message to Mr Trump and other heavy fossil fuel users that the world is moving on.
“You cannot combat alcoholism with more alcohol as we cannot combat climate change with more coal,” WWF’s global climate head Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told reporters in Bonn on Friday.
Climate justice advocate Mohamed Adow, from Christian Aid, part of the Climate Action Network, said it was clear if there was to be any hope of achieving the 1.5 degree limit on warming coal must be phased out quickly.
There also needs to be more support to help developing countries switch to clean energy, he said.
“It can’t be right for the rich world to actually phase out coal and leave the developing world to be on the coal track,” he told reporters.
“The critical thing that is missing in helping to incentivise the countries … is actually finance.”
Pacific Island leaders are also calling for a moratorium on new coal developments, with many pointedly mentioning Australian governmental support for the massive Adani mine in Queensland.
Mr Frydenberg pointed out that the government’s new energy policy is technology neutral and that several of the countries who signed up to the alliance are heavily reliant on nuclear power, with little coal in the mix anyway.
The issue of coal power and exports hasn’t been raised with Australia during negotiations but nor were those technical discussions the place it would be.
As for the Americans, they caused a small kerfuffle with their only official side event, hosted by Mr Trump’s special advisor David Banks, used to promote coal, gas and nuclear power.
Singing protesters staged a walk-out, hundreds gathered outside the room to chant slogans, and the panel was heckled by the second iteration of the audience.
Inside negotiations the US delegation, depending on who you talk to, was either effectively neutral or up to its usual blocking ways, but it certainly didn’t blow up the talks.
The much stronger US presence in Bonn came from the unofficial delegation of state governors, Democratic senators, mayors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Bloomberg, business and environmental groups who were telling anyone who would listen the US was still in, despite their president.
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