There was much disappointment, even disgust, at the latest UN climate conference’s weak progress. But all is not yet lost

There was some good news. Incremental progress was made at the 2013 UN climate conference – COP19 – held this time in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, most notably with the advancement of an international agreement set to be finalised at the 2015 negotiations in Paris.

An essential “stepwise approach” has been agreed upon, in the words of Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action, in what boils down to a patchwork of national offers to curb emissions that would, once and for all, end the distinction between the obligations of rich and poor nations. In theory, all countries must now contribute to future reduction efforts.

But because the offers are voluntary and lack clear timetables, delays may very well follow. Stronger language in the official agreement was blocked, potentially setting up a repeat of the failed 2009 talks in Copenhagen – when last minute commitments were made without adequate time for review and consultation.

Civil society groups were deeply disappointed. No new emissions pledges were made, while some major economies – Japan and Australia – actually moved backwards.

And there were distractions. When she could have been helping to lead the painstaking negotiations at the UN talks, Christina Figueres, the executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), was addressing a separate conference held by the World Coal Association. This meeting was provocatively scheduled to coincide with COP19. 

Climate and business

Figueres took the opportunity to point out to global coal industry leaders that a radical move away from coal-generated energy was essential, and it had to happen in a short time-frame.

And she was soon back to the COP19 climate talks, playing referee among delegate groups who bickered and fought all the way up to the last hours, when a final, unsatisfying compromise was reached.

Along the way, 800 NGO observers, including those from Greenpeace, WWF and Oxfam, walked out in protest of the talks’ low ambitions. “The world is now going backwards instead of going forwards,” said Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy initiative.

At the inaugural Caring for Climate Business Forum, held in Warsaw in parallel with COP19, there was also disappointment, with no new major announcements on renewables investments. The forum is a UN-endorsed meeting of top-level business executives with the aim of providing private sector participants equal footing with the public sector in the co-creation of climate change solutions. Instead, a central message urging business to lobby for clean energy policies emerged from the forum, which was subsequently endorsed by a broad array of civil society actors.

COP19 did produce a few bright spots– in the support given to reforestation projects worldwide and in pledges of additional funds for adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing nations – but, as usual, the wording remains vague and concrete responsibilities unclear.

Nevertheless, it was enough for Figueres to pronounce “essential progress” made in the roadmap towards a universal climate agreement, expected by 2015 in Paris.


A breakthrough in Warsaw came in the form of a formal agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), a programme that aims to compensate tropical countries for protecting their forests (as Ethical Corporation has reported).

Agreed after seven years of talks, specific plans are now in place on measuring, reporting and verifying forest-related emissions, a cornerstone in the safeguards needed to assure governments, funding agencies and private investors.

“This provides political momentum for designing REDD programmes that will maximise outcomes for communities and biodiversity as well as carbon,” says Rosalind Reeve, spokeswoman for the NGO-led REDD Safeguards Working Group. The announcement was backed by pledges of $280m in financing from the US, Norway and the UK.

There was also concrete action in the form of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) receiving official approval to open its headquarters in South Korea. The GCF will help developing countries cope with climate change through the mobilisation of a promised $100bn agreed at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Most of this cash hasn’t materialised, however, arousing anger among developing countries over the reluctance of the US and others to commit to specific numbers.

Developed countries, including Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have paid or pledged more than $100m for the Adaptation Fund. This finances projects and programmes to help developing countries adapt to the negative effects of climate change and has now started to fund national projects.

Actual cash?

But while a newly created “Warsaw mechanism for loss and damage” did mark a milestone of sorts for those pushing for financial support of poorer countries damaged by the changing climate, there were no actual cash pledges to a new loss and damage fund. And any renegotiation of the new fund will occur no earlier than 2016, causing some delegates to question whether rich, developing world countries had negotiated in good faith.

Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are becoming very real for many developing countries. Vietnam, for example, has seen a sea level rise of 20 centimetres. To many, the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines served as a warning of the more frequent extreme weather events that lie ahead – not just stronger typhoons, but also desertification, unpredictability of rain, drought and other problems.

“We did not achieve a meaningful outcome,” said Naderev Saño, a Philippine delegate who had been fasting throughout the meeting to draw attention to the plight of his country. At last count, 5,200 people had been killed in the typhoon, with more than 1,600 still missing, 4.3 million displaced and 23,000 injured.

And so the UN climate talks continue, rolling into Lima in Peru for COP20 in November 2014, before the make-or-break meeting in Paris in 2015. Watch this space.

Polish hospitality

So, why was Poland host of the 2013 UN talks? Its blunt support for more coal-generated power engendered bitter distrust among delegates and aroused the anger of an NGO community whose walk-out in the last three days of the talks was more than just a well-timed media stunt.

Certain utterances and negotiating positions offered up by the Polish government turned the talks into near farce. Its co-hosting a coal summit to coincide with the negotiations, while not organising any debate on renewable energy opportunities, was merely the most publicised offence.

Other unusual events included strange postings on the official COP19 website about the economic opportunities the melting Arctic would bring. Conference delegates were presented with old-school climate denialist statements through mobile device apps.

But maybe there was a simpler explanation why COP19 was in Warsaw. Poland got the conference because no one else wanted it.

“Poland was this year’s host because it was the only country in central and eastern Europe interested in the job when the region’s turn came to host the UN conference,” says Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy programme at the World Resources Institute.

But more to the point, say energy experts, is the realisation that Poland is running scared. The country generates almost 90% of its electricity by burning coal, and because its grid is outdated and inefficient, energy costs in Poland absorb roughly 12% of household income, the highest in Europe, according to Urszula Stefanowicz, programme coordinator of the Polish Climate Coalition.

“The Polish people don’t protest against coal because all the politicians and companies are saying coal is the cheapest source of energy,” Stefanowicz says.

Speaking in September 2013 at a mining fair in the southern city of Katowice, the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, famously said: “The future of Polish energy is in brown and black coal, as well as shale gas. Some wanted coal to be dispensed with, but energy independence requires not only the diversification of energy resources, but also the maximum use of one’s own resources.”

This kind of talk helped strengthen an unofficial “anti-climate” conference on the first day of the UN talks, in which far right forces and youth groups joined in a march of more than 10,000 people. That demonstration of public opposition to the UN agenda, both in size and media attention, dwarfed a “pro-climate” rally held six days later.

Hardly any signs advertising the main UN COP19 climate conference could be found hanging in downtown Warsaw and, unsurprisingly, few locals stopped on the streets of Warsaw seemed to know that delegates from 193 countries were attempting to resolve critical issues facing the planet.

Yet 89% of Poles say they favour green energy, according to a survey co-sponsored by Greenpeace Poland. That same report also notes that roughly half the respondents claim to have experienced the effects of climate change.

“The problem,” says Morgan, “is Poles don’t feel there are alternative solutions for their people. There is a solution to climate change … that requires a new kind of leadership to look ahead and say ‘this is coming and now we need to prepare for it and make sure utilities and mine workers have a transition so they can take care of their families’.”

But you need leaders that understand that. In Poland, brave climate visionaries are in desperately short supply.

The coal problem

While there was some progress, there was also a dark force present at the COP19 meeting: coal.

Poland, the UN conference host, seems unwilling to abandon coal – a fossil fuel accounting for 43% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions. The Polish government plans to build 11,300MW of new coal-fired generation, more than any other member in the EU. And, to the bemusement of delegates attending COP19, the World Coal Association held an “International Coal and Climate Summit” in Warsaw at the same time as the main climate talks, co-hosted by the Polish government, no less.

Christina Figueres, the executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), took time out from COP19 to address the World Coal Association’s meeting. “Let me be clear from the outset that my joining you today is neither a tacit approval of coal use, nor a call for the immediate disappearance of coal,” Figueres told the assembled coal executives, their financiers and political allies. “But I am here to say that coal must change rapidly and dramatically for everyone’s sake.”

Critics wanted Figueres to stay away from the two-day coal conference. Not only would Figueres’s presence legitimise the coal industry’s place at climate conferences, argued environmentalists, but it also had the potential to endorse the idea of increased investment in “clean coal” technology, just when funds are sorely needed for further development of renewable energy.

She wanted to, in effect, speak truth to power, Figueres explained in the days leading up to the event. And she did – by laying down three demands: closeall non-critical plants (or roughly three-quarters of operational coal-fired power plants around the world, according to experts); implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) at all new plants; and leave most of the world’s remaining coal reserves in the ground (a reference to the remaining global carbon budget specified this year for the first time in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Growing reserves 

Through new exploration – especially in Australia, India and Indonesia – hard coal reserves grew by 26bn tonnes (3.6%) in 2011 to 1,038bn tonnes. This is according to Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which estimates an equivalent 132 years of energy output remains in the ground.

The International Energy Agency warns that if we want to have even a 50% chance of limiting overall global warming to 2C – the accepted maximum that the world’s climate systems can cope with – 80% of these reserves will have to stay buried.

The steps needed to put us on this ambitious path require global coal use to peak by 2020, with zero net emissions to follow by the second half of the century. It’s an achievable goal, say IPCC scientists, but only if coal subsidies are phased out.

Activists agree. “The strength of the industry is that more coal is actually being burned than ever before in history,” says Mona Bricke, European coordinator of Climate Alliance Germany.

Bricke adds: “The problem is that without subsidies there is not a real future for coal. They have to ask for money in order to build expensive new plants and they know that if they want to have a future, they have to say coal is clean, which is a lie.”

Analysts say the good news is a change in policy by public funding agencies. The World Bank was the first to move in July 2013, saying only “rare circumstances” would bring further coal investments. This was followed by the Export-Import Bank of the US saying “no” to an application for financing for the construction of a new coal fired power plant in Vietnam. Next came a similar shift of policy by the European Investment Bank, while the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is reportedly about to take similar action.

Much harder will be dissuading the world’s largest commercial banks. In 2012, the private banking sector’s financial contribution to the coal mining industry was five times the level in 2005, the year the Kyoto Protocol came into force.

Climate conference  coal  emissions  REDD  United Nations 

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