In November this year the next global summit dedicated to climate change will start in Warsaw. Once again Poland will chair the global climate negotiations. What is to be expected?
Difficult situation for global negotiations
In 2013 the climate is not well. Last year global CO2 emissions rose by another 1.4 per cent. According to scientists the effects of climate change will be more severe than expected. Most probably the temperature increase will be as high as five degrees Celsius and it will not be possible to curb the increase within the previously estimated two degrees Celsius.
Recently only a few countries managed to reduce emissions. The United States was an exception in that it reduced emissions by 10 % — ironic considering it is the only country of the climate change convention which did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Admittedly Europe did reduce emissions by about 2.5 % cent in 2012, but there is no avoiding the fact that this was partially due to the financial crisis.
When the energy and climate package was adopted in Brussels in 2008 — assuming a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, 20 % share of renewable energy and a 20 % increase in energy efficiency by 2020 — Europe was convinced that it should be the champion of climate protection and that by setting a good example it would entice the rest to follow. This, however, did not happen. Five years have elapsed since that time – and while no one is going back on those decisions, enthusiasm has subsided. Ever more often, instead of discussions of long term climate change strategies among European politicians, we see them talking numbers. The European recession is not releasing its grip and questions regarding energy prices are being posed more often — particularly as the United States is going through a gas revolution and the price of that resource is almost three times less than in Europe. There is a large probability that a few years down the line American gas will make an appearance in Europe, significantly changing the energy map of the Old Continent.
The state of play in Poland and the US
The question is: what role can Poland play as the host of the global climate summit?
For years Warsaw has been participating in all UN and EU political projects in unison, delivering on its promises of emission reductions – which cannot be said of all the EU countries.
Now, however, as one of the three most coal dependent countries in the world, Poland is not supporting an increase in emission reduction targets in Europe — which Brussels is vying for — unless there is progress on the global forum.
Even if Poland on the UN level is presenting the common EU position, in recent years Warsaw seems closer to Washington than to Brussels when it comes to climate and energy policies. The keys to understanding this problem are the disproportionate allocation of costs for this low emission transformation and the varied levels of returns in the EU. The struggle for economic competitiveness is continuing in the background whilst the environment, unfortunately for many European Union member states, has taken on a secondary role.
After 2008, Polish politicians are finding it difficult to explain to Polish society why it is necessary to follow the European climate policy in the face of the fact that it is not yielding the expected emission reduction results and why is it that Poland, according the European Commission calculations, is to pay the most out of the EU countries. Even if the goal of European climate policy is more than just a reduction of emissions, an increase in energy security, innovation, and the generation of funds for the modernization of the industrial sector, the actions of the European Commission are still seen as unfavorable for the Polish economy and without benefit to the environment.
There is no chance of a fundamental change in the direction of climate policy before 2017 in the United States. However, President Obama in his speech on 25th of June announced new comprehensive program for tackling climate change and is going to use his executive powers to introduce more restrictive environmental protection standards through various regulations – a proof that if the big political framework doesn’t work, the bottom up approach might offer a solution to the problem. Nevertheless there is also a chance that the gas revolution will influence the United States to change its position as there is no reason for such determined resistance to reducing targets considering the emission levels are the lowest in 20 years.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
As is evident, significant progress on the subject of a global agreement with legally binding targets cannot be expected in the near future. Therefore the question of how to protect the climate if reduction targets are not viable has to be asked.
Both the United States as well as Poland prefer definite climate protection programs. This is called a framework for various approaches at the global negotiations forum. As an example, such activities could include increasing energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and industry. Such actions will certainly be backed by many countries, including the United States and Poland. The development of dispersed generation is a worthy cause as it is beneficial to local communities and uses renewable energy. The European Union, adopting this new perspective, earmarked 20 per cent of its budget for such efforts.
Another significant issue involves the withdrawal of harmful fossil fuel subventions as discussed by the International Energy Agency in its last report of June 2013. Fossil fuel subsidies paint a false picture in discussions on the costs of energy — and additionally do not take into consideration the external costs of burning coal and other fossil fuels, standing in the way of the development of renewable and clean sources of energy. Even if we accept that the process of moving away from fossil fuels will last many years, the entire energy sector is in need of systematic changes.
The old principle of “thinking global, acting local” is an apt description of climate negotiations. Therefore in Warsaw, we must put more emphasis on definite actions supporting climate protection.
Let’s do more and talk less — before it really is too late.
Joanna Mackowiak Pandera, Head of the Market Development Department, Management Team Poland for DONG Energy, was a Spring 2013 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.