For most of us, climate change conferences seem typically to involve little more than hot air, so the UN Climate Conference (COP 19) taking place in Warsaw these last two weeks might have been expected to offer simply more of the same. However, with a sense of irony as unexpected as it was welcome, the Polish government has managed to inject some light relief into the proceedings.
First, there was the clever idea to hold the International Coal and Climate Summit in Warsaw this week, during the second week of the climate conference which had the effect of causing Greenpeace activists to scurry up the side of another public building in self-righteous indignation. Second, Donald Tusk the Polish prime minster this week re-shuffled his government which included replacing environment minister Marcin Korolec, who is currently hosting the UN Climate Conference.
The former seems to have caused the most difficulty. Greenpeace activists climbed onto the roof of the Ministry of Economy, where the coal summit was being held, and unfurled a large banner in the firm of the Polish flag with the slogan “Who rules Poland? Coal industry or the people”. In the view of Greenpeace it is outrageous that the coal summit should take place at the same time as climate conference and Greenpeace would not like events promoting, in its view, the most polluting of industries to become associated with solving climate change. One might well equally ask, who decides what the government may discuss, the people or Greenpeace?
It seems perfectly reasonable for the Polish government to wish to wish to discuss clean coal as part of its formulation of policies which have to take into account Poland’s dependence on coal (it is the world’s ninth largest coal producer) for a large proportion of its energy needs (please see Black Rock) as well as its wish to meet environmental targets and, as the environment minister pointed out, the coal summit is “one of hundreds of meetings being organized within the framework, or in parallel” to the UN Climate Conference. Needless to say, Greenpeace dismisses clean coal technology as a “myth spun by the coal industry in a desperate bid to survive”. And of the change in minister, Greenpeace’s director in Poland said: “Changing the minister leading the climate negotiations after a race to the bottom by parties to the Convention is nuts and shows Prime Minister Tusk is not sincere about the need for an ambitious climate deal.”
Which is a pity because Poland had actually being doing rather well on the environmental front: while its economic output doubled over the last 25 years, its greenhouse gas emissions shrank by more than 30 per cent. At Kyoto, Poland also committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below their 1988 levels in the period 2008-2012 but actually succeeded in reducing emissions by more than 30 per cent. Alas, despite the evidence, Poland is still criticised for its approach to climate matters – much more so than other EU countries that haven’t met their Kyoto targets. No, for the self-righteous, facts simply cannot be allowed to confuse the argument.
Of course, the climate conference itself appears to have followed a predictable path with the Group of 77 (actually now more than 150) countries walking out of talks after the more developed countries lead by Australia were felt to be blocking progress on payments for climatic loss and damage which is a polite way of saying rich countries were expected to compensate poorer by paying them for every adverse climatic event on the spurious grounds that they were somehow responsible for climate change. The richer countries are right to resist especially when one considers the sort of governments which typify many of the G77 countries – hardly bywords in rectitude nor paragons of good environmental practice. Besides, is there not something rather reassuring in the fact that nature might not always bend to the will of humans?
The icing on the cake was the inevitable mass walk out by environmental groups in protest at the slow progress. The UK energy secretary, Ed Davey, was rather more upbeat about progress and said that he didn’t expect the walkout to have any impact. Which makes you wonder why governments are always so keen to listen to “NGOs” at the expense of voters and by what right they pontificate to the rest of us.
Meanwhile, not content with scaling one public building, Greenpeace activists managed to evade police (despite 34 having been arrested there earlier) to place their own banner over the office climate convention banner adorning the side of Stalin’s post-war gift to Warsaw, The Palace of Culture and Science (one of matched set of eight, the other seven are in Moscow). The Greenpeace banner read “Save the Arctic! Free our activists!” – a reference to the rather stricter line Moscow takes with Greenpeace’s penchant for structural mountaineering.
Be that as it may, was this conference a success? Well, the official communique is not yet out but the executive director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, has been sharply critical of the government’s handling of the conference saying that: “The Polish government has done its best to turn these talks into a showcase for the coal industry.” If true, they won’t have been a complete waste of time. Perhaps Donald Tusk remembered that not only could King Canute not hold back the waves but that his mother was Polish.