President Donald Trump was predictably the outlier at the recent G20 summit of industrialized nations in Germany, holding firm to his commitment to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. But the U.S. still managed to exert positive influence on the global warming debate.
At the president’s insistence, G20 leaders included language on fossil fuels in the summit’s final communique, against the wishes of most members of the elite leadership club.
Negotiating the statement on climate change was among the most contentious tasks the leaders faced. In the end, language was added pledging that Washington would “work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.”
That is a significant concession. In the highly politicized environment of climate policymaking, suggesting any future role for fossil fuels in meeting the world’s energy needs is a blasphemy.
But the statement added by the U.S. is an important nod to reality: Fossil fuels are not going away on any sort of hurry-up timeline, at least not without considerable damage to the world economy and to quality of life on the planet.
Despite new French President’s Emmanuel Marcon’s fantastical pledge to rid France of the internal combustion engine by 2040, the weaning from coal, oil and gas will depend on the pace of technological advancement, not on grandiose promises.
Anytime mankind has faced existential threats it has met them with innovation and ingenuity, and this time will be no different.
Acknowledging that carbon-based energy sources will continue to be essential for generations to come is not an abdication; it is a healthy injection of realism into a debate that too often is lacking in that quality.
So if we have to use fossil fuels, the president’s commitment to using them as cleanly and efficiently as possible should be welcomed.
On that front, the U.S. is leading by example.
From 2005 to 2014, greenhouse gas emissions fell in the United States by 7 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s largely due to the rapid movement away from coal to produce electricity. More than 250 coal-fired power plants have either closed or announced their closures since 2010, as utilities switch to cheaper natural gas.
And since it is economically driven, that trend is not likely to reverse. Despite Trump’s promise to restore coal production, five more coal-fired plants have been shuttered or slated to since he took office in January.
Natural gas supplies have risen and extraction costs have declined thanks largely to the development of fracking technology.
It’s the sort of innovation that will allow fossil fuels to continue to be part of the overall energy mix without deterring from the goal of cutting greenhouse gases.
Adding the Trump-demanded language to the G20 statement is not a distraction from the mission of the Paris accord, but rather a call to keep all options open in pursuing it.