Back in 2015 at the COP21 climate conference in Paris, the U.S. delegation presented numerous side events in the Blue Zone, from EPA, NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy and more. The United States clearly embraced its role as a world leader at a historic global inflection point.
This year in Bonn at the COP23 conference, the one side event from the official U.S. delegation was about the wonders of clean coal.
Spinning the role of fossil fuels in climate mitigation. That's it.
Remembering Schwarze Pumpe
In 2009, I visited Schwarze Pumpe, a small 30MW pilot carbon capture coal plant in eastern Germany. At the time, the country was aggressively promoting its national climate mitigation policy and clean energy development. Schwarze Pumpe was a proof-of-concept for the capture part of the technical process. Some of the captured CO2 was piped or trucked off for industrial uses. Most of it was vented back into the atmosphere after the 29-hour storage limit.
Geologic sequestration was never an aspect of the project, and remains unproven, at least on any significant scale.
Clean coal (and nuclear) to the rescue?
It's not that carbon capture and sequestration isn't worthy of consideration. Many argue that the only realistic way to meet the 2° C limit on warming by 2100 requires some form of carbon removal, capture, and sequestration.
But, as with any other technology, CCS must prove itself. Instead, it feels more like a political tool than a proven, well-considered solution.
In any case, Schwarze Pumpe was decommissioned in 2014. Vattenfall, the energy company behind the project, no longer researches CCS technology.
We probably should have gotten serious about it 20 years ago.
Politics over policy
The U.S. embassy released a statement saying, in part:
"As the world seeks to reduce emissions while promoting economic prosperity, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the energy mix.
Given the importance of energy access and security... the United States endeavours to continue working closely with others to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently."
What the world needs from the United States is the best and the brightest bringing to bear cutting-edge research and development. The kind of R&D that put humans on the moon. The kind of pragmatic leadership that established NEPA, the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. The visionary spirit behind Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, and thousands of other American enterprises.
Fossil fuels will, indeed, play a central - and steadily decreasing - role in global energy access. It is important to develop and share technology that burns fossil fuel as clean and efficient as possible. It shouldn't be the primary focus of U.S. leadership.
At a sub-national level, citizens, businesses, cities, and states make clear their commitment to the Paris Agreement. The dearth of leadership at a national level stands in stark contrast to the hard-won achievement in Paris.
The U.S. stands alone, on the wrong side of history.
Image credit: Grist