On Saturday, the Bonn conference on climate change ended. No one would have particularly noticed that it started or stopped had it not been for Donald Trump.
Mr Trump's opposition to the Paris climate agreement led him to withdraw in June from the 2015 voluntary pledge by nearly 200 nations to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. It made a pantomime villain of the United States, which played the role to the hilt at Bonn. Mr Trump's America ostentatiously sent a champion for "clean coal" to a conference that's steadfastly opposed to fossil fuels. And US state department negotiators in Bonn worked hard to prevent big future payouts by rich countries to poorer ones to compensate for the most destructive effects of climate change.
All of this is reprehensible. However, the outrage expressed by climate change campaigners drowns out a key fact. With the best will in the world, renewable energy will not usurp the place of fossil fuels for decades, if then. In 2015, the International Energy Agency estimated that the share of global energy provided by renewables, a mere 14 per cent in 2012, would increase only slightly by 2040. Then, it would go up to roughly 19 per cent, the IEA suggested.
But things have progressed much faster and better than that estimate. Wind and solar installations have been running at nearly twice the rate of the IEA’s projections for long-term capacity growth.
Even so, no one pretends the transition from fossil fuels to renewables will occur quickly. The oil companies are more pessimistic than almost everyone else, which could be self-serving rejectionism or disinterested realism depending on your point of view. Shell predicts it will take 25 years to reach a tipping point. BP, which re-branded itself "Beyond Petroleum" 16 years ago, says it will be 30 years before the annual output of renewable energy matches the overall growth in demand. And Exxon suggests 75.
Jim O'Neill, the British economist who's best known for coining the acronym BRIC for the rising economic powers Brazil, Russia, India and China, recently noted that oil markets are adjusting to stronger demand. Countries are trying to wean themselves off oil, he admitted, but "that transition will not happen overnight." Two years ago, Scientific American magazine quoted distinguished scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba to remind us that it took more than 50 years for coal to replace wood as the world's leading source of energy and another 50 years for oil to overtake coal.
Given the indeterminate timeline for the changeover, it would probably make sense to have cleaner forms of fossil fuel or non-polluting nuclear power as a robust interim measure. But clean coal, or even cleaner coal, is considered the ultimate oxymoron and those who promote it are often described as morons or mendacious or both. Incidentally, Mr Trump is not the only prominent western politician to have reposed faith in clean coal. So did George W Bush, Barack Obama and John McCain as 2008 presidential candidates, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Coal, of course, is the dirtiest fossil fuel, emitting more carbon dioxide for every unit of energy generated than any other fuel. In 2017, the clean coal mantra sounds more tinny and false than in the Bush era.
It’s hard to agree with the Trump administration’s climate change denialism but it’s right on this particular point – we do need cleaner fossil fuels while we wait for alternative sources to take over. So, the current US administration is half-right, even if for the wrong reasons.
That said, the US contribution to global climate change mitigation efforts cannot be covered by its contribution of one simple big idea – cleaner fuel sources. Mr Trump has reneged on US commitments under the Paris deal even though his country is the second biggest carbon-dioxide polluter after China and its wealth is based on the historical burning of fossil fuels. One of the failures of Bonn may be its silence on ways to penalise a wealthy polluter that refuses to decarbonize its economy.
Why is no one talking of a carbon tax on US exports? If the US is unwilling to limit its carbon footprint and repair what damage it can, there is little point in caterwauling. There is no point bemoaning the lost climate leadership role the world’s most powerful nation might have played. Instead, the US should be made aware that its strength rests on the world’s goodwill – and trade terms – as much as on its own military, nuclear and economic power. A carbon tax on US products would send a message. An economic one.
The Bonn conference is generally thought to have been a success, but it fell short on two counts. It did not speak of a carbon tax on the US and it did not listen to its logic of cleaner fuel provision.