Problem Coal

Merkel swipes at Trump on climate

Climate, Merkel, Trump
Donald Trump offered Angela Merkel a much-needed distraction. Source: Reuters

After weeks of tense domestic political negotiations, Angela Merkel probably welcomed the opportunity to take a calculated swipe at Donald Trump instead. The German chancellor on Wednesday singled out for praise America’s cities and states that have pledged to support the Paris Climate Accord, despite the Trump Administration’s pullout from the agreement.

But Ms. Merkel, whose country is hosting the latest U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Bonn, also disappointed many attending by declining to give a date for ending the use of lignite coal to generate electricity in her own country. “Coal, and in particular brown coal, must make a substantial contribution to the fulfillment of the goals” set at the Paris climate conference two years ago, she said.

That was hardly enough for environmentalists, who warn that the conference hosts are themselves in danger of falling short of climate targets. Adding a degree of insult, an international group of environmentalists called the Climate Action Network awarded Ms. Merkel a “fossil of the day” prize for not pushing Germany to achieve more on the climate front.

“That’s a disastrous signal coming out of the climate conference,”

Sweelin Heuss, Greenpeace Germany

To be fair, the German chancellor didn’t exactly have much leeway given the continued strife she faces over  environmental policy in four-party negotiations to form a new coalition government. The question of how coal will be integrated into climate policy “we will have to discuss very precisely with each other in the coming days,” she said.

Not mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Ms. Merkel lauded a group called America’s Pledge, which is led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is dedicated to organizing local government and business support for the Paris accords despite the federal withdrawal, which Mr. Trump announced on June 1.

“We are convinced that climate policies go hand in hand with a future-oriented economic policy,” the chancellor said, going on to describe the America’s Pledge movement. “I want to warmly welcome this step as it emphasizes the support for the climate agreement across large parts of the US regardless of the decision of President Trump to withdraw.”

Ms. Merkel wasn’t the only one tweaking President Trump at the climate conference, which is known in UN shorthand as COP23. President Emmanuel Macron of France announced that his government would make up to the UN Climate Conference organization any shortfall in funds caused by the US withdrawal.

But the German chancellor also offered some nuance in her speech that may have ruffled some feathers at the conference. She noted that in Germany the climate debate has become contentious, because significant numbers of jobs still depend on fossil fuel industries like coal and leaders have to balance the interests of climate with employment.

As the official host of the climate conference, Ms. Merkel was immediately criticized for not making a more concrete promise about such issues as diesel emissions and the use of coal, which is used to produce 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

Sweelin Heuss, managing director of Greenpeace Germany, said the chancellor “avoided giving the only answer she had to give in Bonn: When will Germany fully exit coal?” Without this, she said, Germany could not meet the pledge it made in Paris to reduce greenhouse gases by 40 percent in 2020 compared with 1990. “That’s a disastrous signal coming out of the climate conference,” she said.

Environmental groups have been urging Germany to reduce coal-powered generation by 20 gigawatts in the next three years to help meet its climate change obligations. They also called for substantial changes in transportation, agriculture and energy policy.

President Frank Walter Steinmeier, who is a relatively powerless head of state in Germany’s parliamentary system, opened the conference by calling for courageous action. “We are already feeling the effects of climate change today,” Mr. Steinmeier said.

After her speech, Ms. Merkel scurried back to Berlin to resume her negotiations on a new coalition with representatives of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, the Free Democrats and the Greens. State television said the negotiations had become acrimonious during the evening session, with some questioning whether there was even a will to form a government.

A preliminary coalition agreement is supposed to be announced this week. But with the Free Democrats urging fewer restrictions on business and the Greens pressing their environmentalist agenda, it’s no surprise there is little agreement on climate change at the conference table.

Silke Kersting covers consumer protection, construction and environmental policy for Handelsblatt. Charles Wallace in New York adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: kersting@handelsblatt.com

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