World leaders are preparing to gather in Poland this month for the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP19. At COP17 two years ago in Durban, South Africa, countries agreed to establish an international climate action agreement by 2015 that would be applicable to all countries, with the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels. This year’s convening is another step towards that agreement, set for COP21 in Paris.
While expectations are perceived as low for the conference, with fewer than 800 days remaining to agree on a new UN pact on climate change, its very important that certain key milestones and timelines are met.
On Thursday, top UN climate change official Christiana Figueres said the meeting is a pivotal moment to advance international climate action and showcase a growing momentum to address climate change at all levels of society.
“National governments need to act to minimize impacts to their populations and ensure sustainable development over generations. The private sector needs to act to minimize climate risk and capture opportunity. And the international process must push forward now to build the foundation for an ambitious universal climate change agreement in 2015,” Figueres said.
Figueres said COP19 is an opportunity for governments to progress in several areas: further clarifying the provision of finance to developing countries so they can cut their own emissions and build resilience; creating a mechanism to allow the poor and vulnerable to cope with irreversible damage from climate change; the concrete design of the new universal climate change agreement; and immediate ways to reverse the trend of rising emissions.
Recent scientific studies corroborate Figueres’ calls for urgent action. In September, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest report confirming that climate change is happening and human activity is responsible. And this week the World Meteorological Organization reported that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2012, continuing an upward and accelerating trend.
Also this week, the UN Environment Programme issued its annual Emissions Gap Report. This year’s report shows that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be eight to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level needed to have a good chance of remaining below the commonly accepted threshold of 2°C warming by 2020.
“If the gap is not closed or significantly narrowed by 2020, the door to many options to limit temperature increase to a lower target of 1.5°C will be closed, further increasing the need to rely on faster energy-efficiency improvements and biomass with carbon capture and storage,” the report states.
However, the calls for action and overwhelming scientific evidence hardly translates to direct action, or even serious cooperation. While countries like the Maldives and the Philippines may be pleading for increased effort, other countries like Australia and even Poland, the host country, are less clearly aligned.
In an odd juxtaposition, during the final week of COP19, the Polish government will also be presiding over a high-level coal industry event that the World Coal Association and Poland’s Economy Ministry are billing as “the coal industry’s most important event of the year.”
The move has angered many climate activists. “The Polish government is transforming something of international importance into a lobby opportunity for coal, the very energy which destroys climate the most,” Claude Turmes, the MEP and vice-chair of the European Parliament Green group told EurActiv.
Poland relies on coal to generate about 90 percent of its energy supply. According to the European Environment Agency in 2011, Polish cities accounted for six out of the ten most polluted cities in Europe.
“Poland hosting the coal summit simultaneously with the UN climate talks is symbolic of the country’s historical foot-dragging on climate change policy,” Rebecca Lefton, Senior Policy Analyst for International Climate and Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress, said. “As the leader of the COP, the country now has an opportunity to put the right foot forward to spearhead international cooperation on solving the greatest challenge of our time.”
In Australia, the recently elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s administration, in a move former executive secretary of the UNFCCC Yvo de Boer found “puzzling,” will not be sending its environment minister to the talks.
“I cannot remember a previous occasion when a major player in this process has not been represented at ministerial level at the high level segment of the talks,” de Boer said.
Abbott has been embroiled in climate change conflict since being elected, already eliciting responses from Al Gore and Figueres for his off-base remarks about climate change having no impact on bushfires. Abbott has vowed to scrap Australia’s carbon emissions tax, saying he would dissolve both the lower house and the Senate if his plans are blocked, and this recent move is likely oriented more towards domestic politics than international agendas.
In June, Russia was blamed for blocking progress during UN climate talks in Bonn and for insisting on discussing procedural rules rather than other issues working towards the 2015 agreement. While other countries agree on the need for procedural reform, Russia was still seen as putting narrow politics before the urgent need to halt global warming.
Speaking last month, Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, said, “Our task now is to fashion a new agreement that will be ambitious, effective and durable. And the only way to do that is to make it broadly inclusive, sensitive to the needs and constraints of parties with a wide range of national circumstances and capabilities, and designed to promote increasingly robust action.”
Countries will need to find a way to work together internationally and domestically to effectively confront a problem that is only getting more dire. It’s been a rocky road in the 20 years since the UNFCCC was negotiated. This week the only three living diplomats who have led the UN climate talks said there’s little chance the next climate treaty will prevent the world from surpassing the 2°C benchmark.