Natalie Bennett: Polluters should be expelled from next year’s COP

Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennet reports from the COP climate talks

What will a renewables COP smell of? Sunshine and sea breezes

Who will be thrust out of it? The multinational fossil fuel corporations

Cities often have a distinctive smell. I think of poor Aleppo, as I knew it many years ago, when it smelt of coffee and cinnamon. I doubt it does now.

For me the smell of Beijing (from the mid-1990s), is that of coal fires. And it will now also for me be the smell of the just-concluded climate talks in Katowice, COP24.

It was, during our time there, the second-most polluted city in Europe those weeks. I got a hint why one morning when I saw an enormous pile of coal on the pavement, right in the centre of the city, being shovelled down a coalhole into what a local told me was a high school building.

It was fitting then that the host and chair of the COP, Poland, was trying its best to make this not just smell like the coal COP, but be the one in which the filthy fossil fuel was made respectable again.

For Poland is trying to keep burning coal for as long as possible – even though its mines are uneconomic and 30% and rising of its fuel comes from Russia (about which the people are definitely not happy).

In justification, it’s trying to make the laughable claim that it will grow trees to soak up the greenhouse gas emissions from coal, as though the whole idea of offsetting had not been comprehensively debunked last year in Bonn.

The carbon capture and storage (CCS) people were out again, promising soon, soon, they’d make the technology work. But there’s no doubt at all that CCS is really simple: nature has been doing it for aeons in creating oil, gas and coal. All we have to do is leave it in the ground.

But this really felt like the last fling for the filthiest fossil fuel.

In 2019, I suspect it will be like nuclear was here, scarcely worth a mention as last century’s technology, whose contribution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions peaked 18 years ago. Only seven countries mention new nuclear in their proposed Nationally Determined Contributions for cutting carbon.

Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to promote it, coal is losing out fast to renewables in the US on purely cost grounds.

The Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne signed up to the Powering Past Coal Coalition (in which the UK deserves rare credit for being a leader, with Canada) at COP24, defying their coal-promoting national government, which continues to pursue the reef-wrecking Adani proposal in defiance of economics and sense.

There’s still fights to be won. Germany has to be pulled into line, or see sense, in signing up to a far faster phaseout than currently planned, and new investment in new coal plant has to end, now.

Locking in emissions for decades, or throwing good money after bad for shortlived projects that could instead have been reliable, certain renewables, makes no sense at all.

The battle over fossil fuels is already clearly moving to gas. Certainly that was the focus of many of the campaigners actions over COP24. The idea that it is a “bridging fuel” to make space for renewables made little sense when fracking tried to start in England seven years ago, and is totally nonsensical now.

As a Greenpeace campaigner said:

“Every cent spent on gas is a cent not spent on renewables.”

When what we need is investment in renewables, storage, and that great Cinderella of energy policy, energy generation.

The Austrian representation here followed the British model in looking more like a trade promotion stall than a national pavilion, but I minded it less when I saw that one area was devoted to Passivhaus refurbishment and newbuild, spreading the idea that houses shouldn’t really need heating at all, but adjust to their environment and needs of their users with natural processes.

Renewables are the future – the cheapest, cleanest, best option to produce the energy that we need (while we ensure that we do only ask what we really need). What’s needed is the investment, which is where every penny going to fossil fuels is to be particularly resented.

That requires, above all, political will, for the only thing keeping fossil fuels going now is the entrenched power of their lobbies, with the massive stocks of decades of planet-destroying, human-rights abusing windfall profits behind them.

At the PPCA meeting, the El Salvadoran minister explained how she’d had to fight off fossil fuel lobbies seeking subsidies. She said proudly:

“By law we’ll only give subsidies to renewables.

That any subsidies at all should be going to massively profitable, environmentally disastrous, abusive companies is astonishing – and we need to say that loud and clear.

Fossil fuels aren’t only environmental disastrous, their economic exploitation and profiteering, for the few not the interests of the many (as their lobbying of the Trump administration for lower vehicle standards so neatly exposes).

Renewables need to be understood as the democratic choice, the people’s victory.

And then the next COP in Chile can smell of something different, not fossil fuel fumes, but sunshine and sea breezes. And we can see the multinational polluters expelled from the talks, as their tobacco compatriots have been pushed out of similar international talks on that industry.

Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party and writes regularly for Left Foot Forward.

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