Opinion: German Coal & Small Island States

Sarah Becker is a researcher at Cardiff University


From the 6th to 17th November 2017 the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) was held in Bonn, Germany, under the Presidency of the Republic of Fiji (the first small island State to hold this position)[1]. My attendance was motivated by the hope of gaining more insight into what goes on at these climate change conferences.

Under the Paris Agreement countries committed to reducing emissions to keep the average rise in global temperature in this century below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels (and striving to remain below 1.5°C)[2]. All Parties are required to outline their best efforts to pursue national level mitigation (nationally determined contributions or NDCs) including to regularly report on both their emissions and the implementation of mitigation measures[3]. Part of the tasks of COP23 in Bonn was to make progress on developing guidelines for implementing the Paris Agreement[4].

Apart from formal negotiations there were many other things going on at COP and it was quite tricky to get an oversight of all the events. Different countries presented themselves in manifold ways; informative material, talks and panel discussions and sometimes traditional dance. NGOs and research organisations had stalls presenting their work and the opportunity to enter into discussion. There were also press conferences as well as daily protest actions.

At side events, speakers such as from NGOs and universities were invited to discuss a variety of climate change related topics. The US’ only official side event entitled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation”[5] promoted a cleaner use of fossil fuels as a means towards addressing climate change and was disrupted by protesters. Other side events opened up a more critical space for people to examine power dynamics between countries and corporate interests in the arena of international climate negotiations. The presence of research and campaign groups from all over the world was pertinent. They challenged the role of richer countries for stalling over measures demanded by many countries in the Global South, despite the formers greater responsibility for contributing to climate change. One such group, the Corporate Europe Observatory, was at COP to: “expose the influence of big polluters and push for them to be kicked out of climate policy, as well as to sound the alarm on industry lobbying for not-so-natural gas as a climate solution”.

One of this year’s controversies between some countries of the global North and the global South focused on pre-2020 action, since this item was not originally placed on the formal negotiation agenda. The Paris Agreement only covers the period starting from 2020, so many developing countries were concerned about the need for taking stock of rich countries’ progress on emission reductions and financing commitments prior to 2020. Eventually, pre-2020 action did form part of the COP23 decision text released at the end[7].

The importance of reviewing commitments was also made evident by an UN Environment Emissions Gap Report released just before the start of COP23. The report illustrated the gap between reductions that would be required and those so far committed to in order to attain the goal of the Paris Agreement[8]: “The NDCs that form the foundation of the Paris Agreement cover only approximately one third of the emissions reductions needed to be on a least-cost pathway for the goal of staying well below 2°C. The gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high.”[9]

Germany being my country of origin, I was particularly struck, although not surprised, by the blatant incongruence between a country’s public presentation and climate commitments in contrast to their actions. While the conference was plodding along in Bonn, Germany’s exploratory talks for a possible coalition following the recent election proceeded, in which one point of contention and deadlock focused on energy and specifically on reductions in the use of coal[10]. Simultaneously, not far from Bonn, mining was continuing in one of Europe’s largest lignite deposits. The operating electric utilities company RWE itself advertises this area as follows: “The Rhenish mining area has the biggest single lignite deposit in Europe. Here, RWE mines just under 100 million tons a year, lignite being Germany’s most important domestic energy source”[11]. Lignite, sometimes referred to as brown coal, is the cheapest but also dirtiest form of fossil fuels for electricity production[12]. One remarkable contribution taking place around the COP came from the Pacific Climate Warriors, who hosted a traditional Fijian ceremony in a village called Manheim, to be demolished for expansion of said mining area. Zane Sikulu, a Climate Warrior from Tonga, drew the connection between German mines and frontline communities affected by climate change: “Germany’s lignite mines are among the biggest coal mines in the world. If we don’t shut them down, we have no chance as Pacific Islanders. We’re here to protect our land, our culture and our identities as Pacific people”.[13] The ceremony was followed by an action in which protesters marched straight into the open cast mine and obstructed production.[14]

Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, has sometimes been called a ‘climate chancellor’ (Klimakanzlerin), but currently Germany is not on target to meet its goal of reducing emissions by 40% by 2020 relative to 1990 levels[15]. This failure so far to honour previous goals did not prevent Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, Barbara Hendricks, from proclaiming the success of this year’s COP: “In Bonn we made great progress, both with negotiating and implementing. The conference fully satisfied expectations in this regard.”[16]

This year’s was the first UN climate change conference to obtain an official certificate for environmentally-friendly event management, received amongst other things for waste avoidance measures and “climate-neutral shuttle services”[17]. However, working conditions at the conference seemed to leave room for improvement. As I was leaving one evening I overheard one of the security staff saying to another, something along the lines of: “I’m not doing this again, I can tell you that much”. When I started chatting to them they said that they had been there since 6 am and were doing 15 hour shifts.

Asking myself what the future prospects of these negotiations are, I considered how difficult it can be in any given situation to reach a decision with a group of well-intentioned people. Expanding this agreement making scenario to the whole globe, to countries with their own internal conflicts, different international interests, corporate lobbying, historic and present responsibilities due to colonialism and past emissions, again highlighted to me the scale of the feat of reaching global agreements as well as implementing them.  So far progress has been rather slow, which for me emphasises the importance of local and citizen led initiatives. Governments, focused on economic growth, rather than environmental and social well-being, are unlikely to deliver in time. There is no rulebook for action, but taking climate change seriously and relentlessly pursuing change continues to be a question of survival and justice.

[8] https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report and http://web.unep.org/europe/2017-emissions-gap-report-launch

[11] http://www.rwe.com/web/cms/en/183460/rwe/innovation/resources/lignite/

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-climatechange/germany-set-to-… and https://www.bmub.bund.de/themen/klima-energie/klimaschutz/nationale-klim…

[16] https://www.bmub.bund.de/en/pressrelease/weltklimakonferenz-in-bonn-mach…

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