UN Climate Conference to be held on top of Polish coal mines: Welcome to COP24

By Rajendra Shende

Is humanity at stake due to climate change?

Underwater cabinet meeting of Maldives in 2009 just about two months before the 15th UN Conference on Climate Change, called COP 15, was deemed to have already responded to that question, albeit symbolically.

Maldivian ministers led by former President Dr. Mohamed Nasheed literally went down in the shallow waters off the island of Girifushi, one of nearly1,000 islands that make Maldives most vulnerable to climate change. They then got down to the business of governing the Maldives underwater by communicating with each other using hand gestures.

Some critics dismissed that underwater meeting as a stunt. Many in the diplomatic world, however, judged it as a remarkable and bold experiment. It was considered a clarion call for global consciousness about the issues that must be hammered out at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. It was storytelling technique by Dr. Nasheed, his favourite mode of communication.

The most intense climate campaigner among the then heads of the state, Dr Nasheed wanted to create awareness not just about the plight of the small island countries in the wake of the sea level rise, but the plight of humanity. Sea level rise due to climate change could even lead to extinction of life on Earth, as hinted in the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, an organisation went on to win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Come 2018. The United Nations Climate Conference, COP 24, three years after Paris Climate Agreement, is now being held, literally, on top of one of Poland’s deep coal mines. It is a bold move by Poland’s young President Andrzej Duda to draw attention of the international community to the darker side of the long and fatally flawed international efforts in addressing one of the deadliest sources of the climate change.

The conference started on December 2 and will end on December 14. It is being hosted in Upper Silesian Basin, a region in south Poland known for its deep mines of lignite, hard, and dirty coal. These are not just the Poland’s largest operating coal mines, but also the home of the mine workers, who are amongst the key factors in Polish politics.

City of Katowice, the venue of the climate conference, is not far from city of Krakow, the hometown of President Duda. Katowice is thus amidst a prominent mining region with a strong political clout. The region is the home for European Union’s largest coal producers. It follows that owners of these coal mines are not just Polish. These mines are not just important to Poland, but to the rest of the globalised world as well.

The message from Katowice and Upper Silesian basin is: to tackle climate change and to avoid underwater cabinet meetings, we need to eliminate coal through techno-political-social solutions and not just through soft technological options, such as “clean coal”.
However, in an step that is bound to make the green movement very anxious, many of the events at the margins of COP24 are financed by the coal mining companies.
Until affordable access to alternate fuel that provides similar employment and prosperity to Polish workers is made available, sticking to coal is the only option for the Polish government. urthermore, the government recently announced that it was planning to invest in the construction of a new coal mine in the same region where COP24 is taking place, Silesia.

Nearly 80 per cent of all electricity in Poland is powered by coal . Globally, coal is the single largest contributor to the greenhouse gas ( GHGs) emissions when it burnt to produce electricity . Coal produces 30 per cent more GHGs than oil, and 50 per cent more GHGs than natural gas. It is also a major contributor to air pollution. Coal mining is also a significant source of emission of methane, which is even worse than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Widespread use of lower quality coal to heat homes, especially in the colder months, has led to smog and respiratory illnesses in Poland’s southern cities, as in many emerging economies like India and China.

Black gold is now dirty and anti-environment. But historically it has not always been anti-human. It has served humanity for ages — in heating, cooking, steaming, lighting, manufacturing, and electrifying. It has been instrumental in triggering and spreading industrial revolution that started with steam engines in mid-eighteenth century, and has provided direct and indirect employment to billions.

To be fair, Poland is not the only country that majorly uses coal to meet its energy needs. Globally, 40 per cent of energy is produced by burning coal. China, India, and USA are the three largest producers of GHGs, most of which come from coal.
The question is, will the delegates in COP24 getting the symbolic message of President Duda in hosting the Climate Conference of world leaders on top of a coal mine?
Not really. 3,000 delegates from more than 180 countries will focus on finalising the “rules for the Paris Climate Agreement” to ensure that it works effectively. They have just about two weeks to do so. The task is not going to be easy because of rules related to financing the mitigation and adaptation in the developing countries and technology-transfer. On both fronts, the performance over last 25 years has been disastrous, mainly due to mistrust between the developed and developing world, political apathy of the world leaders, and growing nationalism . But now, as per the agreement in Paris, the rules have to be ready by the end of 2018.
Alternate solutions to reaching the goal of the Paris climate agreement, that is, limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and making all efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level by end of this century, will be far from the delegates’ minds.

Rajendra Shende is Chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre and former Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Climate ChangeGlobal WarmingPoland