Why COP 19 fell woefully short of the urgent action we need
History was made at the UN climate talks last week – not by the achievement of a breakthrough in negotiations, unfortunately, but by the unprecedented walk-out by 800 civil society groups and trade unions.
Citing the appalling lack of ambition and commitment manifest at the 19th yearly session of the global climate change conference, NGOs blamed the lobbying from fossil fuel companies for impeding progress at the talks. As WWF put it, “Warsaw, which should have been an important step in the just transition to a sustainable future, is on track to deliver virtually nothing. We feel that governments have given up on the process.”
Their frustration was well founded. The industrialised countries like Japan and Australia used the talks to officially scale back their climate commitments, and the demands of poor countries for clarity on greater climate finance were stonewalled. At the same time, the EU’s credibility was undermined by its failure to increase its completely inadequate 20% greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020.
Poignantly, the conference began on the day that Typhoon Haiyan dissipated, and in admirable solidarity with the people of his country, the lead negotiator of the Philippines fasted throughout, joined by many representatives of environmental NGOs attending the conference. Sadly, the immediate evidence of the human costs of climate change represented by Haiyan and other recent extreme weather events did not provide a catalyst for the international action desperately needed.
Perhaps it was never a propitious sign that the talks were taking place in Poland, whose Government’s lack of commitment to reduce its use of fossil fuels has earned it the nickname ‘Coalland’. Just under of 90% of the country’s electricity is sourced from coal. Outrageously, representatives of the Polish Ministry of the Economy co-hosted an event with the World Coal Association in parallel with COP 19, giving lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry a valuable platform, and sending the provocative message that the ongoing cosy relationship between governments and the fossil fuel companies is perfectly compatible with efforts to reduce emissions.
So what did the talks deliver by way of positive outcomes? The top-line political agreement was pretty uninspiring – nations are to “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions” (rather than commitments) ideally, but not definitively by the first quarter of 2015, leaving huge wiggle room for nations to continue to procrastinate. The agreement around compensation for vulnerable countries for the loss and damage resulting from climate change was similarly weak, with no guarantees of actual compensation.
There was some very limited progress: agreement on a mechanism to fund and manage forest protection projects, and a new initiative to work with the IT industry to maximise its potential to curb emissions. The world’s least developed countries announced that they had submitted detailed climate adaption plans, indicating that progress is being made on capacity building – creating the infrastructure and policies they need to support effective climate adaptation projects.
But this falls woefully short of the urgent action needed. Now that no-one with any credibility seriously disputes the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the argument now goes along the lines of “What’s the point in us taking action to reduce carbon emissions when China is building four new coal-fired plants every week?” This argument must not be allowed to gain any traction. The notion that the UK or other developed nations are somehow doing too much to reduce their emissions is preposterous. The UK subsidised the fossil fuel industry to the tune of £4.3 billion in 2011. The ODI says rich nations are spending seven times more supporting coal, oil, and gas than they are on helping poorer nations address climate change.
Until we tackle the undue influence of the fossil fuel industry over domestic policy here in the UK and over international talks, the world will not rise to the challenge of taking action on climate change at the pace and scale needed to secure a safe future. Over 70 organisations have called for new rules to safeguard global climate talks from fossil fuel influence, in order to give them at least a fighting chance of being able to deliver what the science and equity demand.
The UK should commit to supporting such new rules by ending the undue access and influence of companies who profit from more emissions and lobby against effective action, ignoring the reality that if we are to have a good chance of keeping emissions below 2 degrees, at least four fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain in the ground.
In Westminster, I’ve orchestrated debates, asked questions and written letters, and yes, taken peaceful direct action, to try to persuade the Government to commit to replacing their support for fossil fuels with greater promotion of renewables and energy efficiency instead.
Later this year, MPs will have an opportunity to close the loophole in the Energy Bill would allow older coal power stations to stay open and escape the emissions limit. This is the kind of action we need to pressure our representatives to take, and we don’t need to wait to COP 20 to do it.