As Trump tries to revive coal industry, Canada pushes for a phase-out at UN climate meeting

The fissures in the Canada-U.S. relationship will be more apparent than ever this week during the United Nations climate change talks in Germany as Canada pushes to phase out coal as a power source.

'If the U.S. is going to step back, we've said we're going to step up,' says Catherine McKenna

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna ​is in Bonn, Germany, to attend COP23, the annual United Nations climate change talks where the Paris climate change accord emerged two years ago. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The fissures in the Canada-U.S. relationship will be more apparent than ever this week during the United Nations climate change talks in Germany as Canada pushes to phase out coal as a power source.

Canada's position runs counter to the Trump administration, which has declared the "war on coal is over" and promised to breathe life into the industry.

"Canada is committed to phasing out coal. We've created an alliance with the U.K., we're going to get other countries around the world to help support moving forward on a coal phase-out. Coal is not only the most polluting fossil fuel but it's also terrible for health," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna ahead of her trip.

"If the U.S. is going to step back, we've said we're going to step up, and that's exactly what we'll be doing."

McKenna  is in Bonn to attend COP23, the annual United Nations climate change talks, which saw the birth of the Paris climate change accord two years ago.

Since then, the U.S. has not only ushered in a new administration, but has signalled its plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

This year, players are meeting to dole out the rules for how that accord will be put into action, how carbon will be measured and how to keep countries accountable for their promised emission cuts.

Canada, U.K., launching joint campaign in Bonn

McKenna and British counterpart Claire Perry, minister of state for climate change and industry, have teamed up 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.

The pair are launching a joint campaign this week that will call on other countries to promise not to build any more unabated coal-fired plants and eliminate existing ones. Unabated plants don't have carbon capture or storage technology to keep emissions from ending up in the atmosphere.

McKenna on coal

6 years ago
Duration 1:00
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna tells h CBC's The National about pushing for a coal phase-out while in Germany.

McKenna told The Canadian Press they want to help support developing countries to reduce their reliance on coal, but didn't commit any additional money to the program.

About 40 per cent of the world's power is generated from burning coal. In Canada, a tenth of electricity comes from coal plants.

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 the Netherlands have added themselves to the list of countries aiming to get rid of coal. France had already set a 2025 coal-phase out target.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who is also overseas for the meetings, heaped praise on McKenna's move to isolate the U.S.

"The initiative, I have to say, is brilliant politics, that Catherine McKenna and the U.K. are together, with other countries joining us," she said.

"It certainly puts Canada in a very good light globally."

But Canada and the U.K.'s anti-coal initiative is in direct contrast with the Trump administration. On Monday, officials hosted an event promoting the virtues of clean coal and nuclear power as options to cut emissions, given that the world's reliance on fossil fuels isn't going to evaporate overnight.

The event struggled as protesters dominated the attendees in the room and then shut it down for more than 10 minutes with a flash mob song.

'Versions' of the U.S. in Germany 

Last month, Scott Pruitt, 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.

Workers sort coal by hand at a mine outside Jen Cheng in central China. Earlier this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged to make the country's smoggy skies blue again, and "work faster" to address pollution caused by the burning of coal for heat and electricity. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

On Monday, Canada, Mexico and an alliance of 15 U.S. governors signed on to an agreement around clean transportation, like zero-emission vehicles, carbon pricing and reducing use coal-fired electricity.

"Let's be clear, there are many different versions of the United States that are here," McKenna told CBC News from Bonn.

The environment minister drew parallels between how some governors are forging ahead under Trump and how provinces acted under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

"Many provinces put a price on pollution, they moved forward on clean power, they took a whole variety of other measures, and you're seeing the same thing happening  in the United States," McKenna said.

"You've seen provinces like Ontario take action and they've gone from 30 smog days or more to nothing, so that's really important."

If Canada and the U.K. can get China and India involved to some extent, it would be a real victory, said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, who has been in Bonn since the talks began Nov. 6.

In recent years, China overtook the U.S. as the world leader in renewable power development. But it has also struggled to integrate its sprawling wind and solar facilities into an electricity grid still dominated by coal-fuelled power plants.

Abreu doesn't expect either country to agree to phase coal out entirely, but said agreeing to help would be a big step.

With files from The Canadian Press