Sometimes it looks as if the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have bet large amounts of money against themselves on the success of climate negotiations.

"Are we done yet?” Poland has hardly been an enthusiastic actor in UNFCCC negotiations (Source: IISD.ca)

Countries are now engaged in an excruciatingly slow race to reach an agreement by 2015, which would for the first time commit both the developed and the developing world under “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” (ah, the beauty of UNFCCC language…), in order to meet the goal of 2 degrees warming by the end of the century, the “safe” limit that was agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen summit.

Given what’s at stake, and the inefficiencies inherent to the UN process, you’d think that the world’s nations would make sure that not a minute is lost in the talks. And yet, after a Qatari Presidency that left everyone with the vivid memory of conference chairman Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah literally hammering out a last-minute deal, Poland has been designated to host the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP19) next October.

It may not be obvious, at first sight, why Poland hosting the climate talks seems like a step backwards. After all, the ambitions around COP19 are not to come up with a global agreement, but rather to make substantial advances on pressing issues in preparation of the Durban Platform deadline, fixed for 2015 (and a very likely French Presidency). But it helps to remember that the last COP on the road to the rather underachieving Copenhagen Conference in 2009 took place in Poznań, which could say something about the capacity of a Polish COP Presidency to pave the way for ambitious deal-making. These fears, of course, are not enough to dismiss Poland as a valuable host. What weighs heavier is that the country does have a history of blocking progress in climate negotiations, particularly at the European Union level.

Ever since its entry into the EU in 2004, Poland has described itself as a country that needed “more time than others” to meet the common objectives of the European 20-20-20 plan: 20 percent reduction in greenhouses gases, 20 percent share of renewables in energy consumption, and 20 percent reduction of overall energy consumption by 2020. If Poland had had its way, the 20-20-20 plan would have looked like a 14-10-10, perhaps even a 10-7-6, according to proposals made around that time.

More recently, the country also opposed the adoption of any emissions reduction roadmap beyond 2020, fought for the right to carry the surplus of emissions permits (so-called “hot air”) over the second phase of the Kyoto protocol, and has effectively stalled all attempts to “freeze” 900 million European “cap-and-trade” (EU-ETS) carbon credits, meant to drive prices up from where they are stuck today – under 5 euros per ton, far too low to provide a powerful incentive for investment in clean energy.

One of the most surprising features of this constant, fierce opposition to climate change action is that, more often than not, Poland acts alone. Yet a number of other European Union countries depend heavily on fossil fuels to fulfill their energy needs; not all of them share the immaculate environmental record of Latvia or Sweden. Why, among all of them, is Poland willing to face such diplomatic isolation to resist progress on climate action?

Part of the answer lies in the country’s outstandingly high reliance on coal, which makes up more than 90 percent of its electricity generation. Moreover, a significant portion of that fossil fuel is actually lignite, or “brown coal”, the cheapest, dirtiest kind  (which has also enjoyed increasing popularity in post-nuclear Germany).

But this unique choice can only be fully understood through the lens of Poland’s diplomatic history, and in particular its deeply rooted fear of Russia. Polish officials are afraid that overly stringent carbon regulations in Europe will force the country to increase dependence on gas imported from the Russian Federation placing Poland alongside many of its European partners, who rely on Russia for close to 40 percent of their gas imports.

For some time, shale gas provided the hope of ensuring Poland’s energy independence– in 2012, a U.S. government study, estimated that the country’s reserves could cover 200 years of its energy needs. Since then, however, estimates have been slashed by a stunning 90 percent, which quickly drove major international players like Exxon Mobil out of the country, but wasn’t enough to discourage domestic firms like the state-owned PGNiG from trying their luck – and reportedly obtaining the first shale gas flow last week. Poland sees in shale gas, nuclear power, and some timid steps towards renewable energy and energy efficiency, the pathway to reconciling its appetite for cheap energy while complying with the EU push for ambitious climate action.

A shale gas drilling area in northern Poland. Is the country closing the door on progressive climate policy? (Source: pulitzcenter.org)

That pathway is, however, a particularly uncertain one. Controversial studies have ignited a debate about the climate impact of “fugitive methane” from hydraulic fracturing, highlighting the possibility that shale gale could be even tougher on climate than coal. The lack of preexisting infrastructure in Poland could also limit its possibilities of recreating the American shale gas boom. The country’s promising renewable energy potential remains constrained by inappropriate support mechanisms, and the country was referred two weeks ago for failing to comply with EU standards on renewables.

If Poland is serious about doing more than minimum service towards a low carbon energy mix, it cannot afford to stall the progress of the EU-ETS and the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol much longer. Without proper institutional framing, and political momentum, which will help put a realistic price on carbon emissions and reflect the cost of pollution on society, clean energies won’t be price-competitive with lignite fast enough.

Providing effective institutional framing, and creating political momentum, is precisely what is expected of Poland as the President of the climate talks. So far, Polish officials have demonstrated some good will, but a worrying lack of ambition  – “I want the meeting in Poland to be a good introduction to the negotiating process”, said Environment Minister Martin Korolec.

COP19 cannot be an introduction to a process that was started in 1992, with insufficient results: it must be a critical step towards a solid agreement in 2015, which would provide a much-needed globally binding incentive to climate action at the national and local levels. Already this year, it is vital to achieve progress on fast-start financing of the Green Climate Fund, the advancement of the Durban Platform, and all the other questions that did not receive a definitive answer in Doha.

What this conference does is bring the world’s attention to the host country and encourage that country to actually step up to the plate and do more”, UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres said in late November after Poland was chosen to host. This was right after the chaotic closing of COP18 and a year of a rather unconvincing Qatari Presidency. Time for wishful thinking is running out. If it is sincere about its will to make the Warsaw talks a success, Poland must start working as hard as it can to gather support for a global agreement, and clean up its own act. And, by the way, would it be possible to find another location than a football stadium? Thanks.

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.

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