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At the UN, Germany Defends Its Burning of Coal, Makes Up By Buying Credits

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, May 10 -- "It is not an obligation of government to say how a company wants to produce electricity." This was the response of Germany's environmental minister Sigmar Gabriel Thursday to questions from Inner City Press about plans for power plants fired by low-quality brown coal.

   The plans have been criticized by Gabriel's co-presenter, EU environment commissioner Stravros Dimas. Mr. Dimas was recently quoted in Bild am Sonntag that "in terms of greenhouse gases, brown coal is the most unfavorable choice. Whoever builds coal power plants today needs to be aware of the fact that such a policy will be expensive in the long term." A related Reuters report states that "German utilities plan to put at least 26 new coal plants on line in the coming years."

            When asked by Inner City Press at a UN press conference Thursday, Mr. Gabriel took issue with that figure, insisting that only nine new coal plants will be opened, and that the impacts of these can be mitigated by buying certificates under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Afterwards in the hallway it emerged that there may well be 26 new plants; the nine figure applies only to 2012, and Mr. Gabriel was already taking about one, by RwE, slated to open in 2014.

Stavros Dimos on the high seas: rising, rising

            More generally, what Mr. Gabriel didn't answer in his more-than eight minute response, available here starting at Minute 27, is why a country which claims such environmental leadership would still be opening new coal-fired plants, even allocating credits for 400 million tons of carbon emissions toward such plants. One savvy observer told Inner City Press of the subsequently sale of such credits by companies in the UK, akin to printing free money.

            Mr. Gabriel insisted that as long as permits-to-pollute are bought from elsewhere, coal is fine. Requiring the permits creates incentives, he said. What he didn't say is the this backsliding is related to Germany's continued production of coal, in the Ruhr Gebiet and elsewhere, and the desire to keep those jobs. Economic development and the environment must be balanced, for sure. But to defensively pretend that brown coal, lignite, perhaps all the way down to peat, is okay is to be in denial.

            Stavros Dimos is not in denial. His answer to the same question was that no one disputes that burning coal produces more carbon emissions than oil or gas. He mentioned that Greece, too, burns a lot of coal -- it seems he want out of his way to make this critique, because he is Greek, to show his fairness, a practice too rare at the UN.  Dimos has also taken to the high (Baltic) seas to speak against toxic tankers.

  In light of Mr. Gabriel's statement that Bild is wrong, Inner City Press asked Mr. Dimos if that was, in fact, his quote.  Yes, Mr. Dimos indicated, and went on to praise the press for getting the word out on climate change, for making it "almost the top issue."  But of the four journalists who asked questions Thursday of Dimos and Gabriel, two were about the possible election of Zimbabwe to head the Commission on Sustainable Development, and the last concerned Estonia and Russia. More prominent placement of global warming issues has resulted in push-back from some in the UN press corps. "Is global warming the only thing that matters anymore?" one South Asian correspondent asked at Wednesday's noon briefing. Another noted that the hurricane season has now begun. It is three weeks early...

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