Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Trump Wants to Steer UN Climate Cash to Building Coal Plants

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  • U.S. retains seat on UN-backed fund helping developing nations
  • Red wine aided international negotiations over U.S. position

The U.S. will seek to use a United Nations fund designed to aid nations hard hit by climate change to promote the construction of coal-fired power plants around the world.

The U.S. already donated $1 billion to the so-called Green Climate Fund, and it can now use its seat on that board to advance American-energy interests globally, a White House official said.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe climate negotiations at the just-concluded summit of Group of 20 leaders in Germany. A U.S. commitment to "work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently" was highlighted in a statement issued by the group last week.

President Donald Trump previously announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord in which nearly 200 nations agreed to cut carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, Trump insisted he would be open to a new deal that better protects American interests. He also is keeping the U.S. in a longstanding United Nations convention on climate change that underpins the 2015 Paris pact.

Financial support for the Green Climate Fund was seen as a critical tool to win broad support for the global carbon-cutting pact. Former President Barack Obama pledged $3 billion for the initiative, though he only provided a third of that before leaving the White House.

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Trump has made clear the U.S. won’t be sending any more checks to the fund as long as he is president, but the U.S. gets to keep a seat on the managing board for a year or more based on that previous $1 billion contribution. The board, which includes a U.S. official and 23 other members with veto power, has so far approved more than three dozen projects -- including modernizing a hydropower project in Tajikistan and barriers around an island in the South Pacific.

Board members previously refused to impose an explicit ban on funding projects that use fossil fuels, which scientists say are responsible for climate change. Coal is the fuel that releases the most carbon dioxide when burned to produce electricity.

The U.S. wants to encourage developing countries to build high-efficiency plants that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than earlier facilities and construct "clean coal" plants that employ carbon-capture technology to strip out even more, the White House official said.

The U.S. will also use its position as a board member administering the fund to lobby for spending money on natural gas infrastructure abroad, the official said. The fund is supposed to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions and aid those on the front lines of climate change that are dealing with intense droughts, raging storms and other consequences of the phenomenon.

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Activists said the Trump administration’s objective runs counter to the fund’s entire mission.

"This is not supposed to be a coal slush fund or a natural gas slush fund," said Karen Orenstein, the deputy director of the economic policy program at Friends of the Earth. "This is a fund about sustainable development in the age of climate crisis."

John Coequyt, global climate policy director at the Sierra Club, said the idea of using funds meant to aid countries facing the worst consequences of the climate crisis to build new coal plants was tantamount to "taking the fire department’s budget and using it to pour gasoline on the blaze."

To be sure, it would be hard for the Trump administration to win Green Climate Fund support for coal plants and natural gas pipelines. The board operates on consensus and potential recipient projects are nominated for review from fund-accredited institutions. Board members include representatives from France, Sweden and other countries that are eager to combat climate change.

Other Countries

"The U.S. under Trump might want the Green Climate Fund to fund climate change, but there are other countries that actually take the climate crisis seriously, and they’re not going to let the Green Climate Fund be used for Trump’s climate-denying, justice-denying agenda," Orenstein said.

The U.S. advocacy is in line with Trump’s stated goal of American "energy dominance," with U.S. coal, oil and gas helping to supply the world’s power needs. "We will export American energy all over the world, all around the globe," Trump said at an Energy Department speech last month.

Discussions over a bottle of red wine during the Hamburg meeting helped produce consensus language in the summit’s final communique, after France raised objections, the White House official said. French officials wanted to remove the entire fossil fuel sentence. The U.S. in turn argued it couldn’t weaken that sentence unless another was strengthened.

After that meeting, reports cast the communique as evidence of a 19-1 split among world leaders, with the U.S. and Trump isolated on the world stage. But that division was only valid for specific language on the Paris agreement and doesn’t represent consensus on the overall climate language in the document, the White House official said.

Paris Meeting

The statement shows the sincerity of U.S. engagement and the administration’s intent to work with partners and allies in trying to find a way forward on an approach to climate change, the official said.

Despite Trump’s stated willingness to rewrite the Paris climate deal or another agreement addressing the problem, the U.S. isn’t actively asking other countries to negotiate or offering up alternative language. The administration also needs to figure out potential pathways to make the Paris agreement acceptable, the official said.

Trump discussed the accord with French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to the country. "Something could happen with respect to the Paris accord," Trump said at a joint news conference with Macron on Thursday. "We’ll see what happens."

Trump already announced his plan to shift U.S. policy to make it easier for the World Bank and other multilateral development banks to finance coal plants in developing nations. Under Obama, restrictions were put in place to block that financing.  

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