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Opinion: Will U.S. support for nuclear and coal at the Bonn climate talks encourage others to keep polluting?

The U.S. delegation to the most recent global climate conference had an odd couple to present to the world: coal and nuclear. What do these two have in common? Not much, besides an appeal to Trump, his fellow Republicans and their struggles to compete in a world of cheap natural gas and abundant renewables. But much like the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement — the first globally accepted effort to combat the pollution causing climate change — a fondness for coal and nuclear provides abundant cover to other nations to continue polluting.

That’s bad news because that means the fossil fuel consumption behind all that pollution continues unabated, contributing to levels of CO2 pollution in the air we all breathe not seen since before modern humans were a species more than 200,000 years ago. In 2017, after three years of stable or even declining levels of global pollution, the amount of carbon dioxide spewed into the sky rose, thanks to increased coal burning in China.

That’s the kind of coal burning Trump would like to see happen in the U.S. but American inventiveness makes that unlikely. The U.S. has actually reduced pollution by 14 percent since 2005 largely by switching power resources from burning coal to burning natural gas or harvesting the energy in the wind and sunlight. Bonus: Both are cheaper than burning coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

Right now, the U.S. is leading the way to develop the technology to take advantage of this new, cleaner electricity, in particular electric cars, and thanks to Tesla’s Elon Musk and his team, even an electric truck. Cities, corporations and states have begun to reduce emissions, some going so far as to emit no more pollution. At the same time, American farmers are implementing practices , such as no-till farming and precision agriculture, that reduce greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution. The soil can even serve to bury some of the CO2 that’s already gone into the sky. Such CO2 removal schemes, sometimes called geoengineering, will become ever more necessary since the world now has the perfect excuse to do too little, courtesy of Trump’s abdication of leadership.

For example, a global alliance to phase out coal was launched in Bonn, but its members, such as Canada, France, Mexico and the U.K., don’t burn much coal to begin with — roughly 2 percent of the world’s total. The negotiations to increase various country’s pledges to reduce pollution only started this year and have until 2020 to be decided. And Germany will miss even its current pledge to reduce pollution by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, because it is burning more coal.

Germany’s increased coal burning comes as a result of the nation’s decision to shutter its nuclear power plants. China’s decision to burn more coal in 2017 resulted from decreased rainfall that diminished electricity generated from big dams, like the Three River Gorges. Of course, decreased rainfall is exactly what might be expected from a changing climate. And even if all the pledges of the Paris Agreement were fulfilled, the world would not be doing enough to restrain potentially catastrophic global warming. Given the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere–and the fact that these molecules will trap heat for years if not centuries–the world needs to be racing toward zero emissions rather than moving slowly toward a peak in emissions at an all-too-high level.

The battle to combat climate change has shifted from the corridors of United Nations climate conferences to the rooms where trade representatives hash out subsidies to build another coal-fired power plant or wage trade war over cheap solar panels. The good news is that is exactly where change needs to happen in order to restrain or reverse global warming.

Just look at how the bid to close the ozone hole started via the UN has led to an effective international effort to reduce pollution and offer alternative, cleaner technologies for coolants and the like, which has also proven a major help in combating climate change. The bad news is that the U.S. government is often on the wrong side of these fights, if it indeed cares about jobs, the environment, and, yes, people’s health.

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