Coal at the COP? What Coal?


Going Green, Cancun, Mexico

Among the business suits, mini-skirts and the ubiquitous guayabera shirts, there is one garment that is nowhere to be found in the exhibit hall and negotiating rooms of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In the corridors in Cancun, there are no T-shirts that say “Friends of Coal.”

In fact, even though coal is the world’s largest source of man-made greenhouse gases, there seems to be little interest in it here from either side.

The Conference of Parties or COP16 is a Mecca for lobbyists. Everyone here wants something from their national delegations, and most everyone wants to be recognized for their cause. There is a pyramid of boxes urging countries to “end your addiction” to fossil fuels, there are T-shirts saying “I (Heart) KP,” worn by those who want a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, booths set up by Greenpeace, the Climate Action Network and TckTckTck. But no where is there any information about coal – good or bad.

Even the coal lobby seems to be keeping an uncharacteristically low profile. A blog about the COP16 on the World Coal Association’s web site barely mentions the word coal.

But that doesn’t mean coal’s voice isn’t being heard.

According to Greenpeace, coal is likely to get something from the negotiations that it wants very much – an agreement among nations on carbon capture and sequestration.

CCS is a process by which carbon dioxide is captured from smoke-stack pollution, then injected into the rock strata through deep wells. There is one industrial-scale CCS facility in Norway, and there is a test site in Hancock County, Kentucky.

Paul Winn with Greenpeace in Australia, one of the world’s leading coal producing countries, said CCS results could be uneven at best, and it’s not a technology environmentalists would prefer not to see put into common practice.

“When they don’t have a suitable geography for sequestration, we’re likely to have significant leakage,” Winn said.
But despite that, there has so far been no huge outcry about the proposal, or about anything to do with coal.
The premier of an anti-coal movie in the posh Now Sapphire Riviera hotel five kilometers south of COP16 on December 6 drew only two members of the press and no delegates. Even the non-governmental agencies (NGOs in UN speak) weren’t there, and Greenpeace public relations people at the conference hadn’t even heard of the movie or the organization that made it.

Jim Gonzalez, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and head of the Renewable Energy Accountability Project (REAP) dismissed the low turnout.

“It’s nine in the morning. We’ll see what happens at 6 o’clock tonight” when a second showing was scheduled, he said.

Gonzalez’ son Jaime Gonzalez directed the film, which is mostly a collection of stock footage with original interviews with actress and anti-mountaintop removal activist Daryl Hannah and a handful of others.

The film is loaded with statistics about the environmental and economic damages attributed to coal, but it comes across as heavy handed and superficial. And despite the high-profile venue and the obvious attempt to be a major player in the debate over coal, the filmmakers have never visited the coalfields. Instead they relied on news reports, statistical information and the interview with Hannah, who was arrested during a protest at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia.

The film is intended to support REAP’s call for a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, and a sunset law preventing plants from operating for more than 50 years.

Asked about the likelihood that it will have any effect on convincing those not already sure of coal’s downside, Jaime Gonzalez said he wasn’t concerned. The film isn’t intended to convince people outside the anti-coal movement, he said.

“Usually, the people who are on board are under-informed,” he said. “The base needs to be galvanized.”

And the “base” definitely isn’t galvanized at Cancun.

This story first appeared December 7, 2010, on Going Green in Cancun at