Climate on the Agenda

For the first two weeks of December, the Polish city of Poznan hosted the UN Climate Change Conference, a precursor to the all-important meeting planned for Copenhagen next year, where a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol will be negotiated. As you might expect from an event that involved over 10,000 delegates from 190 countries, meeting in an industrial city in a nation where over 90 percent of electricity is generated by the very clapped out coal-fired power stations that are believed to be at the root of the problem, the debate was impassioned.

Apparently, Western delegates left Poznan encouraged by the progress that had been made, but developing countries and environmental organisations were more critical, saying that the difficult questions had been put off until Copenhagen next year. There was also anger that more money was not made available to protect them from the impacts of climate change.

Even before it started, the main outcome of the conference was expected to be a resolution on how to manage the adaption fund, a fund created from a two percent levy paid by industrial nations on the clean development projects they undertake in developing nations. The fund currently stands at around $200 million and is intended for projects that allow developing countries to adapt to the effects of climate change, particularly those with long, low coastlines and shortages of freshwater due to hotter weather.

It took a while but the final moments of the conference saw negotiators agree that projects could be subsidised directly by the fund, rather than going through a complex bureaucratic process. This means that the fund should start spending money in the next few months, and it threw into relief a more serious problem; the yawning gap between the money available and what is needed.

The UN itself has estimated that $50-80bn annually is needed to fund the adaptation projects, so what has been raised through the levy is clearly not enough. Delegates from developing countries called passionately for the proceeds from the sale of emissions trading allowances to flow into the fund – which would increase its value tenfold – but they failed to convince the developed nations to vote in their favour.

Their failure highlighted the two big issues that need to be resolved in order for any future global warming agreements to be reached: who should make the biggest sacrifices on curbing greenhouse gases, and how to increase support for the developing countries that stand to suffer most from climate change. Resolving these questions was effectively deferred to Copenhagen next year and hopes of progress in the interim are being pinned on the policies that President-elect Obama will implement from January.

So, what about Poland? A notice on the Polish Ministry of the Environment website tried to set a high moral tone for the conference by saying that “particular emphasis will be put on [the] identification of specific examples of successful technology transfer and of the actions on adaptation to climate change, so that these good practices could be promulgated.” Unfortunately, these fine words weren’t enough, and the very first day of the conference saw Poland named as the sole recipient of the “Fossil of the Day” award by Climate Action Network, a global alliance of over 400 NGOs. CAN cited Poland’s “plenary claims to be setting an example in tackling climate change, while doing the very opposite by its damaging engagement in Europe’s climate and energy package” as the reasons behind its decision.

Poland’s problem is understandable and it lies in the network of coal-fired power stations that generate the electricity that costs the Polish consumer 75 percent of what his neighbours in Germany pay. Over 40 percent of these power stations are over 35 years old and frequently teeter on the brink of collapse. Replacing them with modern coal-fired power plants will cost the Polish taxpayer billions of zloty, and the EU emissions policy would mean that permits would have to be purchased for billions more. All this means higher electricity prices, which is rarely a vote winner.

Further pressure comes from membership in the EU, which means that Poland is automatically classed as a developed nation and subject to emissions targets, despite having an energy infrastructure akin to that of a developing nation. Until now, Poland, like other accession countries, has found the EU’s generous allocation of CO2 emissions permits a useful source of extra income as they can be sold off to more polluting nations, but both the EU and environmentalists are concerned by the apparent lack of progress on plans to modernise its energy infrastructure. With the EU’s own talks on climate emissions starting in Brussels straight after Poznan closes, the world will be watching to see how Brussels resolves these difficult questions in its own backyard.

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