So, it seems like I owe the Polish government an apology.
Last month I wrote a first blog about Poland and its future role as host of the UN climate talks, insisting on its ambiguities towards the diplomatic process and pointing out, for instance, that it had made the rather unconventional decision to host the negotiations in a football stadium.
Well, after a “field trip” in Warsaw, I’ve learned that the National Stadium is one of the things that the country holds dearest, and that this venue choice is actually a sign that Poland is taking its role as President of the UNFCCC 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) quite seriously. So, please accept my deepest apologies, or as I should say, przepraszam.
This correction, sadly, does not apply to most of the other points I have made about Poland’s stance on climate and energy issues. Since my last blog, Environment Minister Martin Korolec, in recent comments to a news agency, bluntly closed the door on European climate policy-making before 2015 (the deadline year that countries have set for themselves to come up with a global, binding agreement for climate action within the UN framework). This is a notable difference with the pre-Copenhagen situation, when the European Union managed to put together the “20-20-20” package before the 2009 climate talks, as a way to lead by example and encourage other countries to step up their ambitions.
But Poland has its own ideas on how the EU should approach climate change leadership from now on. Not, of course, by interfering with sovereign domestic energy choices (ahem), but rather backing the production of electric cars, setting a target for reducing fossil fuel imports, and finally ending energy subsidies. Though these suggestions may seem like good common sense, it’s not too difficult to imagine the rationale behind them: insisting on reducing fossil fuel imports would effectively reduce the EU’s economic dependence on Russia, a country with which Poland has a long, often conflict-ridden past; while opposing clean-energy funding and carbon pricing helps protect Poland’s own coal industry development.
Having the same Environment minister burying European climate policy-making one moment, and serving as chairman of the UN climate talks the next, is preoccupying. Once again, common sense is not absent from this reasoning – how can one maintain influence in the negotiations if all of your cards are already on the table? – but the Polish position lacks sincerity. The deep disconnect between climate negotiations and reality, whether in the form of dire scientific predictions or green economy opportunities, has proven extremely hurtful for the entire process and Poland does not seem particularly intent on bridging this gap.
As of now, it remains difficult to think of any alternative country, region, or alliance to the EU that would be willing to combine significant diplomatic and economic weight with a (relatively) progressive stance on climate issue. European leadership may not have been enough to spark ambitious deal-making in Copenhagen, but the complete lack of that leadership would bode ill for the success of the Parisian rendez-vous in 2015. By preventing the EU from performing life-saving measures on its dying Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS), and entertaining the separation between climate talks and climate action, the Polish government is not fulfilling its own promise of “paving the way for the 2015 deal.”
Thankfully, the fate of COP19 in November is not in the Polish government’s hands alone. Recently in Bonn, where intermediary talks on the 2015 deal were hosted by the UNFCCC Secretariat, the discussions were unusually open and productive. The ritual “agenda fight” that has become a regular feature of climate conferences was absent. Fresh, innovative ideas finally made it to the negotiations table, such as the EU-backed “spectrum of commitments” that would allow countries to choose from a wide variety of actions to fulfill their objectives, or a proposed mechanism to ensure that commitments remain in line with the latest science.
Another positive aspect is that Polish environmental and civil society groups are determined to seize this opportunity to shift the country’s official stance on energy and climate issues. Many sense that the Poland’s blocking stance is no longer diplomatically affordable. While in Warsaw, I was able to meet with representatives of the Polish Climate Coalition. The Coalition, in recent years, very cleverly switched from a “doomsday” climate discourse to one centered on distributed energy opportunities and the local health benefits of moving away from coal. The highlight of my trip was definitely an encounter with the burgeoning Polish Youth Climate Network, prepared and determined to make some noise around COP19.
Climate negotiations may not have made substantial progress toward what is needed to save the Earth’s climate – but they have at least developed the habit of motivating action in their wake. After speaking with those in the Polish environment circles, I’m confident we’ll see some interesting things happen around COP19… and with regards to what will happen inside the Stadium, well, let’s hope that the Polish Presidency of the conference will make me have to apologize again!
Antoine Ebel is a former intern with Worldwatch Institute’s Climate and Energy team, a regular contributor to ReVolt, and the President of CliMates, an international student think-tank striving to research and promote innovative solutions to climate change.