White House officials and business leaders appear at the event, titled The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.
The Trump team was heckled and interrupted by a protest song at the UN’s climate change summit in Bonn on Monday after using its only official appearance to say fossil fuels were vital to reducing poverty around the world and to saving jobs in the US.
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.”
Other attendees at the summit condemned the argument.
“Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and a UN special envoy for cities and climate change.
Benson Kibiti, from the Kenya Climate Working Group, said: “More coal will entrench poverty.”
When questioned, just one of the four energy executives Trump’s team chose to speak at the event expressed support for his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement.
At the only official event put on by the US government at the two-week summit, Banks said: “Without a question, fossil fuels will continue to be used and we would argue that it is in the global interest that when it is used it is is clean and efficient as possible.”
“This panel is only controversial if we choose to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the realities of the global energy system,” he added.
The event was interrupted when about three-quarters of the 200-strong audience stood up and began singing in protest.
To the tune of God Bless the USA, the mostly young protesters sang: “So you claim to be an American, but we see right through your greed, it’s killing right across the world, for all that coal money.”
The protesters then left, but the panel was heckled, with angry members of the audience shouting “bunch of liars” and “clean coal is bullshit”.
The appearance of an executive from Peabody Energy, the US’s biggest coal miner, was particularly provocative. In 2016, the Guardian revealed the company had funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate changeand oppose environment regulations.
Peabody’s Holly Krutka challenged the argument that coal has no future role. “The discussion needs to be not if we use coal but how,” she said.
She also cited carbon capture and storage technology as vital in cutting fossil fuel emissions. Such technology includes the Petra Nova CCS project in the US, which captures CO2 and then uses it to flush more oil out of reservoirs. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that tackling global warming without CCS will be much more expensive.
Another panellist, Barry Worthington, executive director of the United States Energy Association, illustrated his points in favour of fossil fuels using future energy projections from ExxonMobil, BP and Statoil. He said US energy companies were already cutting carbon and was the only panellist to back Trump’s Paris pullout, saying: “Frankly, we don’t need the Paris plan.”
But the US event prompted fierce criticism at the climate summit, where countries are working to implement the landmark 2015 Paris agreement. Coal is both the dirtiest fossil fuel and a cause of air pollution that causes millions of early deaths every year.
“If the [Trump] administration won’t lead, it should at least get out of the way.,” said Bloomberg, who is also a backer of “America’s pledge”. That effort saw 20 states, more than 50 big cities and 60 big businesses confirm their commitment to the Paris goals on Saturday – a group that would have the third biggest economy in the world if it were a country.
Kibiti said: “More coal is not going to end the problem of people living without electricity. The vast majority – 84% – of electricity-poor households globally are in rural areas, so off-grid solutions powered by renewables like solar, wind and small hydro are going to be the cheapest and quickest.”
“Exploiting poor, disadvantaged populations to justify continued fossil fuel usage is a despicable breach of humanity,” said Kathy Egland, at the NAACP in the US. “The Trump team promoting this abomination are exhibiting the depth of greed, lack of morality and lengths the fossil industry will go to maintain their wealth.”
Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, who advises some of the least developed countries, said: “Any country or company continuing to champion coal and even other fossil fuels from now on would be wilfully carrying out a crime against humanity.” Professor Piers Forster, at the University of Leeds, UK, said: “Coal is not clean – it is dangerous. [Coal emissions] have to rapidly reduce to zero. Those who argue coal has a future are putting the planet under real risk.”
Two dozen of the 196 countries backing the Paris agreement have included efficient coal technology in their national contributions to cutting emissions. But predictions for future coal use have the plummeted in recent years as the cost of renewable energy has dropped. In 2013, the International Energy Agency expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040; today it anticipates just 1% growth, while China and India have recently cancelled plans for hundreds of new coal plants.
Andrew Steer, CEO of the World Resources Institute, said the US event was irrelevant: “It is a total distraction. It will not change the overwhelming momentum away from coal. The closing of coal plants in the US has accelerated since Trump was elected. It’s King Canute trying to hold back the tide.”
Earlier on Monday in Bonn, the US’s neighbours Canada and Mexico further isolated Washington by announcing a new partnership with the 15 US states that have pledged strong climate action. Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, and her Mexican counterpart, Rodolfo Lacy, joined with the governors of Washington state and California, Jay Inslee and Jerry Brown, to form a group that will focus on phasing out coal power and boosting clean power and transport.
“We are all in this together,” said McKenna. “The countries that move forward and realise there is a $30tn opportunity will be creating clean jobs and growing their economy.”
Inslee added: “Trump is a blip in history. Not one country has expressed that there is any doubt [about climate action] just because Trump is still a climate denier. He can tweet his fingers off, but he won’t stop us. If you want to grow your economy, focus on the jobs of the future.”
The global campaign to phase out coal use received a boost last week when Bloomberg donated $50m. He has given $164m to anti-coal efforts in the US in the last six years, during which time half of US coal power plants have closed or been cancelled.