Oxfam International

Warsaw: When polluters talk...

Jagoda Munic | 28 November 2013

On November 23, 2013, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proudly announced on its website that the Warsaw Climate Change Conference 2013 had concluded successfully.

Conference organizers listed some of the following as 'successes' of the most corporate-influenced climate conference to date: the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage; modest advances on the Durban Platform, the Green Climate Fund and Long-Term Finance, and on the Warsaw Framework for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) Plus.

This cheerful conclusion notably omits a key fact. Just one day before the planned conclusion of the  climate talks, hundreds of individuals from every continent, representing social movements, trade unions and non-governmental organizations, walked out of the conference to protest the lack of progress and the sponsorship and participation of polluting businesses 1. Not only was there no progress on agreed approaches to combat climate change, but previously agreed positions were openly undermined or reversed.

Despite the fact that the world was stunned by the lethal effects of super typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands of people in the Philippines only hours before the climate talks started, we did not see any added sense of urgency at the conference.

The UNFCCC signatories recognize that rich countries have done the most to cause the problem of climate change and should take the lead in solving it, as well as provide funds to poorer countries to repay their climate debt. But developed countries' governments did nothing to deliver on these commitments in Warsaw.

A few days after the typhoon, Australia joined Canada in rejecting a future binding agreement on greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. Australia also watered down climate change legislation back home and moved to scrap its carbon tax. Japan announced that it would cut GHG emissions by 3.8% from 2005 levels by 2020, which is actually an increase of 3.1% on 1990 levels. And the disappointments did not stop there.

The talks will continue next year in Peru and then in France in 2015, where a new global agreement that will be in force post-2020 is due to be agreed. But what this agreement will look like, we still do not know. Until then, the world is left without a binding agreement, with nations free to continue polluting while making voluntary and often empty pledges to cut their emissions.

A new agreement is very much needed of course, but questions remain about the extent and fairness of the cuts. While developing nations remain focused on a key aspect of the UNFCCC – the 'common but differentiated responsibility' to tackle climate change – industrialized countries are trying to escape from their responsibilities and ask for a new binding agreement for all.

Developed countries have also accumulated a so-called ‘climate debt’  through their historical use of fossil fuels during their development. In other words, developed countries overindulged and got rich, but now everyone stands to lose. This excess now prohibits developing countries from following the same model of development without having a dangerous impact on the climate.

Therefore, any new binding global agreement must include a climate justice perspective, meaning that we need to take into account the historical responsibility of developed countries that have the capacity and the means to take more of the burden in reducing emissions.

Apart from historical climate debt, current energy distribution is also fundamentally unfair. One-fifth of the world’s population, or 1.3 billion people, have no access to electricity, while yet another fifth has limited access. At the same time, energy consumption per person in the USA and Canada is roughly twice that in Europe or Japan, more than ten times that in China, nearly 20 times that in India, and about 50 times as high as in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Therefore, it is a moral responsibility of the developed North to take climate justice into account and lead the way towards post-carbon societies. And there is no time for delay. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges us to do so. We must make drastic cuts now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

A total of 57% of greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels. Burning coal is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. In 2012, 43% of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion were produced by coal, and abandoning coal would reduce GHG emissions by nearly 25%.

Of course, transition will not be easy, but it is possible. Increasing energy efficiency, cutting down energy use per capita and investing in renewable resources, are some changes that can be made.

The problem lies in strong opposition from the fossil fuel industry, which is blocking the energy transition. The financial benefits derived from energy production and use are a source of considerable economic power, which in many circumstances translates directly into political power – power that is exercised over and over again to maintain access to the profit-making opportunities that the destructive global energy system provides.

In many places, politicians and policymakers have direct connections with, and financial interests in, destructive and unsustainable dirty energy. Furthermore, senior executives connected with energy industries are often given powerful positions on government committees and regulatory bodies, which all have obvious impacts on the energy policy choices of governments.

So, the profits of the few are jeopardizing potential benefits of a safe climate and access to energy for all. Strong corporate lobbying was evident at the Warsaw climate conference too, notably when the coal industry organized a summit running parallel to the climate talks.

The civil society walkout's main message was ‘polluters talk – we walk’, emphasizing the fossil fuel industry's influence at the negotiations. The other message was ‘we will be back’, because we want UN processes to create effective spaces for democratic representation and decision making. In the meantime, at the local, national and international levels, we have to act and promote solutions that will contribute to a climate that is hospitable for human life.

At Friends of the Earth International, we argue that we must move away from dirty energy (not just fossil fuels – read Good Energy, Bad Energy to learn more) towards a just, sustainable, climate-safe energy system. Our vision is guided by the principle of energy sovereignty, which is the right of people to have access to energy and to choose sustainable energy sources and sustainable consumption patterns that will lead them towards sustainable societies.

A system that provides energy access for all as a basic human right will be climate-safe and based on locally appropriate, low-impact technologies. Moreover, it will be under direct democratic control and governed in the public interest to ensure the rights of energy sector workers, and their influence over how their workplaces are run. It will be small-scale and as decentralized as possible and will ensure the right to free, prior and informed consent. It will also ensure rights of redress for affected communities. Energy use will be fair and balanced with minimal energy waste. 

The unprecedented walkout at the Warsaw climate conference brings us hope that our governments heard our message, that they will be spurred into action, and that they will even break the deadlock of the UN’s climate change talks.

Photo credit main picture: Oxfam International