Former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer defends coal finance

Politicians “too cowardly” to back carbon price, which would offer better climate benefits than attacking coal, says de Boer

By Megan Darby in Seoul

A former UN climate chief defended the use of climate finance for coal, in an exclusive interview with RTCC on Saturday.

Yvo de Boer, now head of the Global Green Growth Institute, also declined to back the growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

He argued that “a proper price on carbon” was a better way of tackling climate change than “declaring war” on a particular technology or fuel.

Coal will be a “necessary part of the energy mix for decades to come,” de Boer said on the sidelines of a sustainable cities conference in Seoul.

The polluting but cheap fuel is a “logical choice” for emerging economies like India, China and South Africa.

“You really have to be able to offer these countries an economically viable alternative, before you begin to rule out coal,” he said.

Report: US carbon pollution set for 2015 drop as coal plants close

The remarks put de Boer, who headed the UN climate body at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, at odds with his successor Christiana Figueres.

When Associated Press revealed in December Japan was using “climate finance” to fund a coal plant in Indonesia, Figueres expressed concern.

“There is no argument for that,” she told the news agency. “Unabated coal has no room in the future energy system.”

Green groups agreed, urging the UN-backed Green Climate Fund to rule out support for coal plants, which are the highest emitting source of electricity.

The fund, set up to support low carbon development and adaptation to climate change in poor countries, has yet to do so. It has raised US$10 billion in government donations and is due to start releasing cash in October.

‘Clean’ technology

De Boer suggested that climate finance bodies could make sure new coal plants were built to the highest efficiency standards.

Indeed, Japan justified its use of climate finance for coal by saying it had used cleaner technology than would otherwise have been the case.

“I think the Green Climate Fund should be investing primarily in renewables, in energy efficiency, in modern transport technology,” said de Boer.

“But at the same time I am not sure you can solve the climate challenge by declaring war on certain technologies or certain energy carriers.”

Report: UN climate envoy backs fossil fuel divestment movement

The interview followed a session on finance at the ICLEI World Congress, in which mayors were urged to divest city funds from fossil fuels.

Jinty MacTavish, a city councillor from Dunedin, New Zealand, said 19 ICLEI members had committed to withdraw cash from dirty energy companies.

At the last count 270 organisations worldwide had divested, including universities, faith groups and charities.

There are active divestment campaigns on several more campuses. Bloomberg reported 19 Yale students were arrested in a sit-in protest on Thursday.

The movement aims to undermine the legitimacy of industries that profit from climate-polluting activities.

MacTavish highlighted research finding more than 80% of coal, a third of oil and half of gas reserves must stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change.

Coal ‘necessary’

Asked if cities should divest, de Boer said they should put money where it is “safest” for citizens.

It is “good to take a global perspective” and put money into “windmills rather than machine guns”.

But coal was unlikely to rapidly disappear from the global energy mix, and and “it’s important you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” he said.

“It is a bit strange for me as a climate person to say that, but it is an honest answer.”

He added: “The reason why we are not seeing significant movement on the climate agenda is politicians are too cowardly to put a proper price on carbon.

“If politicians finally found the courage to put a proper price on carbon, we wouldn’t be having the discussion about coal.”

Megan Darby’s travel to Seoul and accommodation was paid for by ICLEI

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