Warsaw: What is it good for? Poland’s role in the climate change talks

I just arrived in Warsaw, joining the Oxfam team that must already be part exhausted by the first three days of the climate change talks here. I’ve been pretty wary about this event, not being able to square the contradictions of having a climate conference in the capital of a country whose government has consistently blocked progress on European climate action, at a time where all signs – global and local, scientific and mainstream, from business and communities – are pointing to a desire for a decisive shift towards low carbon futures and economies that can deal with the impact of a changing climate. 

Poland out of touch

Polish politicians are out of touch with what is going on in the world and in their own country. Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, refuses to accept that coal has no place in a 2 degrees world, and appears to have no plans to reduce Poland’s dependency for 90% of its energy provision on coal.

That’s also the reason Poland keeps blocking an increase in the European climate target, even though Europe has pretty much already achieved the goals it has set for itself in 2020 – seven years early.

Most recently it has also set up a Climate4Growth campaign, supported by the Polish Foreign Ministry to influence European ambition on 2030 climate policy, and not in a good way.

Special consideration?

The Polish government says it needs special consideration because it is a country in transition and still needs to prioritise growth. It claims some undeserved credit for having reduced emissions – undeserved because these resulted from economic restructuring post-communism, not because of climate policy – since 2002, emissions have actually gone up 8%.

Polish ministers often claim that they are closer to the position of developing countries than ‘richer’ EU member states when it comes to climate policy, as developing countries all want ‘space’ to grow and  ‘time’ to adjust.  

Poland dragging its feet

But Poland has it all wrong. Developing countries are crying out for slashing emissions faster and steeper. Impassioned pleas by those from countries most affected by devastating extreme weather events appeal to emitters – historic and current – to act now; they are not asking for more time. Instead, many of them are taking action themselves. The Pacific Island States, some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world, and least responsible for emissions, recently committed to reduce emissions and speed up the development of renewable energy systems. While Poland takes barely any action to reduce its dependency on dirty coal, a country like China has just committed to reduce the portion of coal in the energy mix to 65% by 2017. Climate action is taking place across the globe yet the Polish government is losing all credibility by dragging its feet and actively constraining the EU’s position. 

The Polish government is not only out of touch with what’s happening in developing countries, it also doesn’t represent its own people – more than 89% of Polish people want to leave coal behind and support renewable energy instead. Our colleagues at Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH) will surely continue to bolster support from the Polish people for action, by highlighting how climate change wrecks food systems and causes hunger in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. And watch out for an upcoming stunt with a Polish celeb later this week!

So where to on climate policy

But where does all this leave us, as we need the 19th climate conference to be a key building stone to the global agreement we need to create in Paris in 2015? Of course, it’s not just up to the Polish presidency – we need to see all parties in this together. The Orwellian world in which countries clain to take climate action while repealing climate policies, as the Australians just have done, is of course one that not just the Polish government is responsible for. The Polish government says it has prioritised climate finance for this conference as a key outcome.

We agree that climate finance is key at this COP, that we need a global plan outlining the key steps for how rich countries will meet the $100bn commitment by 2020, and that new money needs to be committed in the short term, particularly for adaptation. For starters, the Polish presidency would make a great signal if it were to pledge money itself into the UN Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund and put pressure on other rich countries to do the same.

But with Poland’s track record on ducking the need for steep emissions cuts, the focus on climate finance should not be a distracting tactic to put the spotlight elsewhere. One cannot buy its way out of climate action – as the Japanese reportedly is planning to do by the end of this week.

Poland must not be allowed to distract negotiations or derail climate action in Europe and elsewhere. Poland risks being sidelined if they do not focus on ensuring the summit makes real steps towards delivering a global climate deal in 2015. They have to take these talks seriously.

Follow the Oxfam climate team at COP19 here on the blog, or on Twitter: @OxfamAtCOP.

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