Hope for 2015 agreement alive despite ‘dirtiest climate conference on record’
Pressure mounting on all countries to step up their ambition in cutting emissions
Philippines delegate Yeb Sano at the UN climate change conference in Warsaw. After making an emotional plea for urgent action in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, he went on hunger strike, vowing to continue until there was “meaningful progress” at the talks. Photograph: Pawel Supernak/EPA.
Friends of the Earth described Warsaw as “the dirtiest climate conference on record”. Not only did the Polish government host a “coal and climate” summit to coincide with the 19th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but the UNFCCC’s secretariat shamelessly accepted corporate sponsorship from the coal industry.
A phalanx of 800 climate change activists walked out of Warsaw’s National Stadium in protest at the influence of the fossil fuel lobby and the lack of progress being made in the tortuous negotiations – the first such walk-out since UNFCCC annual conferences began in Berlin in 1995.
Some groups, including Christian Aid and the Union of Concerned Scientists, stuck around to exert what influence they had on delegates as the conference reached its climax. US secretary of state John Kerry was being bombarded with 5,000 emails per hour from people concerned about global warming, according to Iain Keith of campaign group Avaaz.
If there was a star in Warsaw, it was Philippines envoy Yeb Sano. After making an emotional plea for urgent action at the opening session in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, he went on hunger strike, vowing to continue until there was “meaningful progress” at the talks.
‘Loss and damage’
At the closing plenary session on Saturday, he welcomed the agreement on a “loss and damage mechanism” to aid poorer countries in some as yet unspecified ways, but complained it would effectively be limited to adaptation. “For some of those here, flexibility is political. For me, it’s existential. Yet it’s us who have to bend over backwards.”
Ruth Davis of Greenpeace said that the fact that “many countries came here with so little to offer the victims of climate change in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan has caused wounds which will take some time to heal”. But even after a “bitter and divisive conference which the Polish hosts tried to turn into a showcase for the coal industry”, hope was “still alive” for an agreement in 2015.
And yet, the industry’s attempt to suggest that coal could become “clean” – via still untested carbon sequestration and storage – probably backfired. UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres, acting on her controversial decision to address the World Coal Association’s Warsaw gathering, told industry chiefs that most coal reserves would have to “stay in the ground”.
In advance of CoP 19, President Barack Obama announced the US would no longer provide financial support for new coal-fired power stations abroad, except in “rare circumstances” – a bold move that was publicly backed in Warsaw by British energy secretary Ed Davey. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are taking a similar view – and banks are bound to follow.
China is also closing down older coal-fired power stations and is instead promoting nuclear and renewables.
Australians are now the big offenders. With nearly 44 billion tones of coal reserves, the new Conservative government is dismantling its Labour predecessor’s plans to impose a high price on carbon. This was hailed in Warsaw by a far-right US lobby group, the self-styled Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (Cfact), as “an example to the world”.
Nobody should pay a blind bit of notice to Cfact and its virulently denialist position on the human role in climate change. Even in the US, the power of such extreme groups is declining, with a recent opinion poll showing a majority in each of the 50 states accepts it’s happening.
This was demonstrated by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the first volume of its Fifth Assessment Report, published in September. Further volumes will put more pressure on all countries to step up the level of their ambition in cutting the emissions now definitively shown to be causing climate change.