Hosting COP18 in Doha, a city built on oil, was a choice that didn’t go unnoticed for its irony. The fact that Poland, a country that relies on coal for 88 per cent of its energy needs, is hosting COP19 has proved to be an equally controversial topic. Further scrutiny has been placed on Poland after news that the World Coal Association is hosting the International Coal & Climate Summit in Warsaw on November 18th and 19th, in a direct scheduling conflict with the UNFCCC meetings.
A cursory glance over the program shows that the subjects covered at the coal conference are focused around technologies to improve performance, reduce pollution and CO2 emissions. The framing of the agenda does not change the fact that coal eventually needs to be removed from energy nexus completely. Without this transition, Poland will not meet the European Union CO2 reduction targets, even with carbon capture and storage technologies in place. And yet the Polish Government has made it clear that they do not plan on making this transition. “We want to have renewable energy sources, but hard coal and lignite, and soon shale gas, will remain our principal energy sources. That’s where the future of the energy sector lies,” said Prime Minister Donald Tusk in September.
The most contentious issue surrounding this coal conference has been the invitation of the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres to deliver a keynote speech. Her acceptance of the invitation sparked members of the UNFCCC’s youth constituent, YOUNGO, to write an open letter to Christiana, giving her a sort-of-ultimatum: either attend the Conference of the Youth or the Coal Summit.
The letter is heavily critical of the coal industry for having a “serious conflict of interest” for undermining “the legitimacy, perceived and actual, of the entire the UNFCCC process.”
“The World Coal Association’s goals are clearly contrary to the UNFCCC’s core objective to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change.”
The youth group was not happy with Figueres’ response, with some claiming it was patronising. Figueres argued that “much, much more engagement” is needed with the energy industry, saying that “we need to build bridges beyond our circle of friends” including with “those who could and should contribute in big ways to the solution.”
“It is only through such engagement that a global consensus on the critical problems of our times, and the options available to address them, will emerge.”
The YOUNGO letter highlights that it is not just the carbon intensity of coal production that makes it an unthinkable energy choice for the future, but that coal production has many other detrimental effects on local environments and its workers.
Many activists feel that talking with big coal is akin to helping your executioner choose his weapon. Fossil fuels cannot be immediately phased out, but activists are seizing on the irony of the Polish Government building new coal plants whilst hosting the climate change conference.
Adam Greenberg, a youth delegate with SustainUS, further defended YOUNGO’s letter. “This not about Ms. Figueres, this is about corporate capture of the UNFCCC process.” Greenberg expresses the dismay and anger in both youth and NGO circles. “This is completely counter-productive and it is unacceptable, in the face of climate catastrophes that we’re seeing around the world from Hurricane Sandy in my own country to Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged the Philippines, we’re paying this price and it’s measured in lives.”
“If the head of the WHO were to attend a tobacco conference, it would be indefensible. You can either advocate for the interests of those who would hijack the process or you can advocate for the interests of the people it’s your job to protect. You cannot do both.”
NGOs have stood in solidarity with YOUNGO, with Greenpeace staging protests at coal power plants in Poland. A group of six NGOs have also written an open letter to Figueres, reiterating the request for her to step back from the Coal Summit.
“Of particular concern is the way the Polish government is allowing commercial sponsorship for COP19 and increased access for large fossil fuel and industrial interests to wide aspects of the COP. This is an unprecedented and highly worrying change to the mode of operation for the UNFCCC climate process.”
Many delegates to COP19 feel their host is stuck in the past and deliberately muddying the waters with coal. For the moment, Figueres isn’t bowing to pressure, and continues to talk coal.
By Jade Neville, photo by Sarah Marchildon.