First week of U.N. climate talks saw coal cages, coal sponsors, and coal-polluted air

COP24: brought to you by a dying fossil fuel industry.

Pieces of coal are seen being used as part of the decoration on the Poland's stand during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018. CREDIT: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Pieces of coal are seen being used as part of the decoration on the Poland's stand during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018. CREDIT: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The annual U.N. climate talks are meant to bring the world together to find a way to tackle the global climate crisis. But this year, they are instead serving as a reminder that the world is still largely unwilling to give up on the coal industry — even as coal use plummets in countries like the United States and multiple climate reports warn of the imminent threat of global warming.

Known as COP24, this year’s U.N. climate talks are held in Katowice, Poland, and the conference has been more notable for its embrace of fossil fuels than its efforts to ease away from them.

The event’s sponsors include three Polish coal companies, at a conference held in the heart of Polish coal country. Poland itself is the European Union’s leading producer of hard coal and the country routinely suffers poor air quality in the winter as coal uses rises. Generating some 80 percent of its energy from coal, Poland comes second only to Germany in its consumption of fossil fuels throughout the European Union — something reflected yearly in its winter air quality.

That reliance has shaped Poland’s leadership of this year’s conference.

“‘Solidarity’ and ‘just transition’, the language is key to making acceptable [policy decisions],” Polish president Andrzej Duda emphasized on Monday, referencing coal jobs as the talks began. He went on to argue that, “the choice we are making is not between jobs and the natural environment but whether we are going to keep both or none of them.”


Transitioning away from coal has been considered a priority for meeting the conditions of the Paris climate agreement. That’s particularly true in developing countries, like India, and in poorer nations like Poland that lag behind their Western counterparts in energy resiliency.

But it isn’t happening quickly enough. An ominous October report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the world has just over 10 years to keep from passing a dangerous global warming threshold.

Another International Energy Agency (IEA) report, released Tuesday, found that carbon emissions from wealthy nations are set to rise in 2018 for the first time in five years. And according to a third report, released this week by the Global Carbon Project, worldwide carbon emissions also jumped this year to an all-time high. That report caveats that emissions can be reduced, if countries act swiftly and across industries.

“Only global answers can solve global problems,” U.N. head António Guterres said as COP24 began, sounding the alarm on the need for worldwide climate action.

But the hosts of COP24 have failed to emphasize the need to transitioning away from coal, which is responsible for almost half of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions.


“Coal soap, so cool!” proclaimed boxes featuring bars of coal-themed soap offered at the conference. That speaks to a broader trend: COP24 organizers have continued to highlight the ways in which coal is still a part of their economies and daily lives, even with air quality plummeting in Katowice thanks to smog.

COP has long drawn criticism for its reliance on corporate sponsors, many with a lackluster record on climate issues. But this year’s conference has been disproportionately notable for its emphasis on fossil fuel dependency, something highlighted by large-scale displays from the coal industry.

State-owned coal company Jastrzebska Spólka Weglowa SA (JSW), the sponsor behind COP24’s infamous cages full of coal, has defended its involvement even as visitors have choked on Katowice’s air outside the conference hall.


Coinciding with the conference this week, the Polish trade union Solidarity aligned itself with the Heartland Institute, a Chicago area-based conservative think tank that has long advocated against climate science and climate action.

In a joint statement released on Wednesday, Solidarity and the Heartland Institute took aim at the October IPCC report and downplayed the U.N.’s findings.

According to the statement, the two parties “express skepticism” over the report and reject “that the world stands at the edge of a climate catastrophe.” Together, the organizations stress that “there is no scientific consensus on the main causes and consequences of climate change. Neither organization opposes the goal of clean air nor supports the elimination of coal from the world’s energy portfolio.”

The United States notably lacks its own pavilion at COP24 and U.S. movements domestically toward fossil fuels and away from decarbonization has largely been seen as a drag on global climate talks.

But the Heartland Institute won’t be the only display of U.S. support for fossil fuels during COP24. On Monday, Trump administration officials are set to partake in a side event promoting fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The administration’s presence at that event comes despite U.S. reports detailing both declining national support for coal and the growing peril of climate change across the country. Released November 23, the congressionally-mandated non-partisan National Climate Assessment (NCA) found that virtually every part of the United States is being impacted by global warming.

A second report released Tuesday simultaneously revealed that U.S. coal consumption is at an almost 40 year-low.

Both reports come amid ongoing efforts by the Trump administration to bail out the coal industry and roll back environmental regulations. On Thursday, as the first week of talks wrapped up in Poland, the U.S. government announced plans to ease carbon-emissions rules for new coal-fired plants, despite no current plans to build new coal plants in the country.

This piece has been updated to clarify the Heartland Institute’s headquarters.