President Donald Trump wants to redirect funding for countries affected by climate change towards the construction of coal plants.
Using its seat on the U.N. Green Climate Fund (or GCF) board, the United States will work to advance U.S. energy interests globally, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity with Bloomberg. In step with the Trump administration’s broader efforts to revive the coal industry, the official said the United States will encourage countries receiving GCF funds to construct “clean” coal plants. Lobbying for spending money on natural gas infrastructure globally will also be a priority.
Shifting away from coal and other fossil fuels was a key component of the historic Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2° C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. Coal itself releases more carbon dioxide when burned to produce electricity than any other fossil fuel — playing a staggering role in climate change. Mining for coal, moreover, is notoriously dangerous and takes a heavy toll on the environment.
The Trump administration’s push for coal abroad comes following a joint G20 statement released last week, which emphasized a U.S. commitment to “work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.” (Other nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris agreement, breaking with the United States.) But that approach is an uphill battle. Touted as a sustainable alternative by coal proponents, achieving “clean” coal (primarily by using carbon capture and storage — CCS) is in fact a challenging and expensive process — one that arguably doesn’t actually work, domestically or globally. It also flies in the face of climate efforts made by many of the world’s 20 most powerful economies, 19 of which split with the United States on the issue during the summit.
Pushing for coal is especially alarming in the context of the GCF, which is meant to help, not hinder, countries lacking access to resources. Designed to assist developing countries in combating climate change while developing sustainable technology and infrastructure, the GCF has been targeted by Trump, who claims it redistributes wealth from more affluent countries to lower-income nations.
“Beyond the severe energy restrictions inflicted by the Paris accord, it includes yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called ‘green climate fund’ — nice name — which calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries,” Trump said he announced in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris agreement.
Many countries around the world, including China, have actually contributed large sums of money to combating climate change. Over 40 countries support the GCF, even including nations like Mexico, Chile, and Colombia, which face steeper economic challenges than their wealthier counterparts.
A crucial incentive for countries like India to sign on to the Paris agreement, the GCF addresses the financial hurdles that make sustainable growth a problem for many governments. India, which is on track to meet its Paris targets, has made breakthroughs in areas like solar micro-irrigation using GCF funding. Dozens of projects across the world have also benefited from the fund, which has allowed for massive infrastructure development in remote parts of Pakistan and wide-scale efforts to help struggling countries like the island of Tuvalu, which is threatened by rising sea levels.
Under former President Barack Obama, the United States pledged $3 billion to the fund — but only $1 billion was paid before Obama left office. Trump has cut future funding for the fund from his proposed U.S. budget, but the initial contribution means the United States retains its board position for at least a year, one that comes with veto power.
Financing coal projects overseas is a broader strategy the Trump administration has indicated it will employ in its efforts to kick off a “new era of American energy dominance.” That could be easier said than done — the United States was among 34 countries that signed on to an Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agreement limiting the types of coal projects signatories are allowed to finance. Pulling out of the agreement would be a challenge, meaning the United States is bound to it for the time being.
But even if the United States succeeds in pushing coal abroad, it’s unlikely that U.S. coal will benefit as much as the Trump administration argues. Exporting U.S. coal is difficult, and global demand is falling. Countries like China, India, and Norway are also increasingly investing in renewable energy and shifting away from coal.
Standing to lose the most from U.S. coal efforts are lower-income countries vulnerable to climate change but desperate for energy. Protests in Bangladesh made headlines in 2016 when plans for two massive coal plants revealed they would be mere miles from the Sundarbans — the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The United Nations expressed concern about the project last October, recommending that Bangladesh seek out energy alternatives.
At the time, Payal Parekh, a program director at non-profit environmental group 350.org, emphasized the other options available.
“Solar panels already provide affordable, reliable energy to 18 million people in the country, and other renewable energy options like wind power can be harnessed instead of condemning the Bangladeshi people to the toxic impacts from the 4.7 million tonnes of coal Rampal is set to burn every year,” Parekh told the Guardian.
Bangladesh’s leader, Sheikh Hasina, has pushed back on criticism. “We have to provide energy to our people,” she said in March. “I have to develop our country. If you cannot develop the economic conditions of your people, then how will you save our people? We have to insure the food security; we have to give them job [opportunities.]”
Theoretically, the GCF serves exactly this purpose, allowing countries to grow sustainably and offsetting the cost of doing so. Without that incentive, it’s likely many will opt to continue developing as they have been — relying on coal.
That’s something the Trump administration seems willing to exploit, and it’s likely to find a few allies. While G20 governments have consistently indicated an interest in moving away from fossil fuels, a report released at the beginning of the month indicated the numbers don’t quite match up. Between 2013 and 2015, G20 countries spent $71.8 billion annually to support fossil fuel production (only $18.7 billion went to clean energy technology.)
One country in particular stands out: Japan has signaled its interest in embracing coal while its peers work to reduce emissions. In January, the country announced plans to build 45 new coal-fired power stations over the course of the next decade — making the country right in line with Trump’s vision for the future.