December 30, 2013
Struggle In Warsaw
The United Nations Climate Change Conference that took place in Warsaw recently saw bitter recriminations, walkouts, haggling over minor changes, and demonstrations from all sides. It brought many different interest groups into conflict and demonstrated clearly the immense difficulties involved in coming to an agreement on cutting global emissions.
Controversy arose early as the Polish hosts allowed a two-day Coal Industry meeting to take place in Warsaw at the same time as the UN Conference. The international Coal and Climate meeting (which is basically a platform for the world coal industry) was even addressed by the UN Climate Change Negotiator Christiana Figueres. Such was the outcry over this perceived conflict of interest that the Polish environment minister chairing these talks was sacked. Demonstrations by Polish miners in support of the coal industry added to the tension. Meanwhile, down the road in Krakow, local residents were also demonstrating about coal but theirs was a different story. Krakow suffers from massive pollution from coal fired power and domestic fires and is often choked with smog, especially in winter. The locals are up in arms. Local activists claim that people in Warsaw are inhaling the equivalent of 2,500 cigarettes a year because of coal related pollution. But Poland relies heavily on coal with around 85 per cent of its energy being provided by coal and, with an estimated 600 years of deposits available, this is not likely to change soon.
All this shows how polarised the opposing sides are on this. No wonder the conference was so slow to come to any agreements – so slow in fact that hundreds of people who were there as delegates for Environmental groups walked out in protest. Greenpeace claimed the Polish organisers had turned it into a showcase for the coal industry.
The conference began shortly after Typhoon Haiyan had struck the Far East and the Philippines in particular. Climate change is seen as a key driver of major natural disasters like Haiyan and the lead delegate from the Philippines was quick to point this out. In a passionate speech to the conference, Yeb Sano brought tears to the eyes of some delegates when describing the effects of the typhoon and said it was “time to end this madness”.
There were other setbacks too. The Japanese contingent announced it would be cutting its targets on emission cuts – it had promised to cut CO2 levels to 20 per cent below 1990 figures but now said they would be 3 per cent higher and Australia signalled a lower commitment to climate change measures.
Eventually, after haggling over minor changes, the conference agreed on a “framework” for a new pathway to further talks in Paris in 2015. This is small progress indeed.
One other development could have far greater implications however. It was agreed to set up “an interim mechanism to provide the most vulnerable populations better protection against loss and damage caused by extreme weather”. What this means in practice is that it may become possible for victims of natural disasters seen as resulting from climate change to take legal action against those companies or nations deemed responsible. This will be extremely hard to implement and I predict another bonanza for the lawyers with decades of legal wrangling but maybe one day victims of climate change will be able to extract more than tears from the international community.
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