3 days at COP23

For me, COP23 started in a similar way to my journey into Bonn – there were lots of green announcements, as on the bus in from the airport, and coal present but barely acknowledged, much like the barge full of the black stuff that passed under the bridge my eco-bus crossed.

So the first couple of side events I attended were interesting, but played to half empty rooms. I learned that the AIIB will fund limited coal developments, in certain circumstances. And there wasn’t a great answer to the question of substitutes for fly ash in the circular economy when coal is phased out – other than demolition and construction waste, which would surely become quite limited in a truly circular economy.

The session of main interest to me was run by the USA on advanced fossil fuels and nuclear power. It seemed odd that a massive queue had formed for this event 2 hours before it was due to start, but I joined it anyhow. Then as the mass of people in front of me grew, I became concerned about not getting into the event, so I made a couple of calls and ended up entering the room with the US delegation and sitting in the front row seat. Result!

High level speakers started, such as Dave Banks special assistant on energy to President Trump, who had performed the same role for Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. Other members of the panel were Barry Worthington, head of the US Energy Association, Amos Hochstein from Tellurian gas company, who had previously worked in the State Dept during the Obama administration, Dr Holly Krutka from Peabody and Lenka Kollav from NuScale Power. The presentations were not controversial. There were standard IEA charts on energy demand and supplies, currently largely sourced from fossil fuels. Technology advances to reduce emissions were presented. Five minutes into Barry Worthington’s (USEA) presentation, 90% of the audience behind me stood up as one and started singing in unison an anti-fossil fuel song. They brought the session to a standstill for several minutes and eventually filed out peacefully. They had not engaged in the discussion, and they did not stay to see if they would learn anything.
The room filled up with other delegates and the presentations resumed. They were good, clear and explained ongoing developments to reduce emissions in coal and gas, and new modular nuclear plant. The questions from the floor were aggressive, simple and tended to get personal.
Everyone in the room was interested in cleaner energy and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. It’s more likely that this will be achieved by technological achievements and knowledge sharing, than by closing your ears and singing a protest song.

The COP is vast. There are two sections – one where the ministerial debates and decisions are taken, and a huge other section of side events. Here there are 12 main meeting rooms, an exhibition area and then an enormous pavilion area where many countries have displays and meeting areas. I’ve attended as many sessions as possible, and coal has barely been mentioned, despite currently supplying almost 40% of global electricity. This is very much a renewable energy event. It is also very much about policy – the assumption is that if the right policies are in place, then the engineers will sort it out.

A session on renewable energy solutions to meet the 1.5 degree C target sounded interesting. I wanted to hear how it could be done. But the main conclusion was that most renewable energy experts surveyed believed it could be done by 2050. This wasn’t very surprising, or informative. One question from the floor asked how the high temperatures needed by the steel industry for example would be achieved without fossil fuel.

The Innovation for Cool Earth event in the Japanese pavilion stressed the need for technological innovation.
There was some acknowledgment that industry and transport may find it difficult to become net zero emitters.
A highlight was hearing Bertrand Piccard who flew round the world in a solar-powered plane. He is an inspirational speaker and has set up the world Alliance for Efficient Solutions to help bring innovations to the market.

There were interesting presentations by various US states including Oregon and Washington and the actions they are taking to reduce emissions.
Fossil fuel subsidy reform featured in some sessions. The World Energy Council discussed the energy trilemma. There was an interesting session which included methanol production from CO2, as an example of CCU, and work that is going on in Sweden to produce fossil free steel.

So, after 3 days here in Bonn, it seems to me that there is massive support for renewables, and plans for 100% renewables by 2050. But during the 33 years until we get there, coal cannot be mentioned. This seems a wasted opportunity as we are committed to burning coal until then, so to me it seems logical to put some effort in to using this coal as cleanly as possible, as part of global efforts to meet the 2 degree C challenge of the Paris Agreement. But coal was not on the agenda, and CCS is barely there either.