11/12/2017 16:44 EST | Updated 11/13/2017 12:03 EST

Canada Squares Off Against U.S. On Coal At UN Climate Talks

The two countries view coal very differently.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 16, 2017 in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — Climate change talks in Germany are headed for a collision course on coal this week — and Canada is right in the middle of it.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is arriving today in Bonn, Germany, to attend the second week of COP23, the annual United Nations climate change talks that two years ago led to the Paris climate change accord.

This year, the parties to Paris are hammering out rules for how that accord will be implemented, how carbon will be counted and how countries will be held accountable for their emissions cuts.

McKenna and her British counterpart, Claire Perry, minister of state for climate change and industry, want the conversation to focus on getting rid of coal as a power source, which is responsible for more than 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

McKenna and Perry are hosting a joint event Nov. 16 to launch a joint campaign calling for other countries to declare a plan not to build any more unabated coal-fired plants and eliminate existing ones. Unabated plants are those that have no carbon capture or storage technology to keep emissions from ending up in the atmosphere.

"We want every country to look at how they can reduce their use of coal and phase it out and we want to be supporting developing countries to do so," McKenna told The Canadian Press in an interview last week.

Riccardo Savi via Getty Images
Catherine McKenna, Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on Sept. 19, 2017 in New York City.

McKenna did not, however, commit any additional money to the program.

About 10 per cent of electricity in Canada comes from coal, and 40 per cent of the electricity around the world is generated by coal-fired power plants.

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Phasing out coal

A year ago, Canada committed to eliminating coal as a source of power by 2030. Britain has committed to getting rid of it by 2025.

Since Canada and the U.K. first announced their coal phase-out campaign last month, Italy and Netherlands added themselves to the list of countries aiming to get rid of coal. France had already set a 2025 coal-phase out target.

But their anti-coal initiative is in direct contrast with the United States, which is kicking off the week with an event promoting all the ways fossil fuels like coal can be part of the narrative of combating climate change.

Max Rossi / Reuters
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt talks with Canada's Environment Minister Catherine McKenna during a summit of Environment ministers from the G7 group of industrialised nations in Bologna, Italy on June 11, 2017.

"I anticipate it will be a big story this week," said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, who has been in Bonn since the talks began Nov. 6.

Last month, Scott Pruitt, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, declared the "war on coal is over" as he tore up the U.S. Clean Power Plan, a legacy of President Barack Obama that required states to cut emissions based on energy consumption and offered incentives to foster renewable power and energy efficiency.

The U.S. successfully managed to convince the G20 to include a statement about the U.S. helping other countries "access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently" in its final statement in July. On Monday, U.S. officials and fossil fuel industry representatives will make presentations about it.

Pushing for clean energy

McKenna however said the world has already decided with its money that coal is a relic of the past.

"The market has moved on coal so the good news is you now have clean energy like wind and solar that's cheaper and there's far more investments in wind and solar than there is in coal," she said.

Despite her bravado, the Global Coal Plant Tracker shows plans are afoot for another 1,600 new coal plants, which once operational would expand coal power by 42 per cent around the world.

China's energy companies are behind 700 of them, despite China's pledge earlier this year to scale back its coal plans at home. India's state-run National Thermal Power Corp. intends to invest more than $10 billion to build new coal plants over the next five years.

If Canada and the U.K. can get China and India involved to some extent, it would be a real victory, Abreu said. She doesn't expect them to agree to phase coal out entirely, but agreeing to help would be a big step.

Germany would be another big get for the coalition, and may be an easier fish to land if German Chancellor Angela Merkel tries to get the German Green Party into her coalition. The Greens want Germany to meet its emissions reduction targets, which would require it to abandon coal.

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