Warsaw (COP 19) 2013
Summary Report, Learning in Warsaw

Summary Report (COP19), Warsaw, Poland
December 4, 2013
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

Learning in Warsaw

The IETA and Climate Profit

There was a small meeting room down a hard-to-find hallway on one of the five floors of the vast, mildly disorienting (depending on the degree of your jet lag) Stadion Narodowy (National Stadium) in the midst of Warsaw where the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held last month.

The room, for the two week run of the conference, served as the unofficial working office of climate business interests in general but officially that of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), an association for carbon traders. These are people who buy and sell “carbon credits”, those little certificates that give you a claim to own…well…air, dirty air…and sell it, hopefully at a profit. (ITEA’s CEO, Dirk Forrister is an unusually genial man who served as Chairman of the Clinton White House Climate Change Task Force.)

The functioning word in this somewhat sleight-of-hand process is ‘profit’, that ever-illusive gain over investment the promise of which often leaves hard-nosed, ‘real-world’ business types feverishly chasing shadows in hopes they will somehow become substance (i.e. Make a Killing). It is the grease on the tracks, the best guarantee that the nice hotel rooms, first class airline tickets and the elegantly-tailored black suits that are their uniforms will continue to be available to them. 

Not that there is something inherently wrong with seeking emoluments for one’s endeavors. It has its place but maybe not here at the annual congress dedicated to saving the world from the climate chaos into which we have begun to tumble now in earnest—-a result in some part of the ardent profit-seeking of the fossil fuel companies. Maybe not, especially after the vast carnage of record-shattering Typhoon Haiyan or that of the almost equally destructive Pablo that struck the Philippines coincident with the beginning of last year’s COP 18 in Doha—just after ‘super typhoon’ Ofel the same year. (How many warnings do you need, for God’s sake!) 

Yet, there it was, all around COP 19 in the perpetually repeated logos and attractive handouts left conveniently lying about. This was a corporate-sponsored, if not indeed, run, event. And it should not have come as a surprise. Copenhagen had a strong corporate component. Siemans graphics, for instance, were prominent throughout that city. All the COPs since have had about them the aura of the professional trade fair or convention where companies as well as NGO’s maintained booths featuring their products or processes or just sent reps to make sure they were in on capital flows when the vast climate-response spigot was finally turned on.

Before the opening on November 11th, this Conference had largely been written off by a lot of anti-carbon campaigners, including the contingent of Native Americans who were COP regulars in past years. They had decided that they would be wasting their time at such a business-friendly, corporate branded event dedicated to the Gods of the Market and the sacrament of Market-Based solutions. (The powerful and encouraging presence of Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network was notably missing.)

King Coal Challenged

Lest this intimation of corruption be thought of as far-fetched, Big Coal had already placed itself in harness with the UNFCCC in the organization of this event. Indeed the very choice of Poland as the site of this COP 19 presented questions. Why, at a time when coal is under attack from all sides and for entirely valid reasons, would one want to place ones emission reduction initiatives in a cooperative relationship with a government that has established and virulently defends an electricity grid for which 90% of its power supply comes from burning coal? There are also a dozen large new coal and lignite-burning plants in the planning stages in Poland right now.

Then there is the rather outrageous “coincidence” of the staging of a second summit in Warsaw at the same time as COP 19. This one also has to do with coal and climate but explicitly from the point of view of the coal industry. Convened jointly by the Polish Ministry of Economy and the World Coal Association, the two day International Coal and Climate Summit came as a slap in the teeth to climate campaigners. Some of them had been clinging to hopes that progress could be made at the COP in reducing the power of coal, the dirtiest and, for humans, the most unhealthy of fossil fuels.

It was especially painful when UNFCCC Executive Director, Christiana Figueres felt compelled to forego an appearance at the Conference of Youth, at which she had been expected to speak on Monday, the 13th of November, so that she could deliver a keynote address to the gathered coal barons. After a mild scolding to the gathered coal industry, Ms. Figueres went on to urge the development of methods that would keep burning coal “compatible with the 2 degree Celsius limit”. 

The young people were not happy with the Executive Secretary for her choice of audiences, 的f the head of the World Health Organization were a keynote speaker at a global tobacco summit, the world would be outraged — and rightfully so,・said youth delegate Yunting Hong of Taiwan Youth Climate Coalition. But what choice did she have. After all, Alstom, a huge Polish coal mining and transportation corporation was one of the chief sponsors of COP 19. So it begins. 

Youth Speaks Out on Coal

Meanwhile, young climate activists’, with a contingent of slightly older idealists, academics, former ‘60s radicals and labor union organizers had provided a sorely missing contrast to the prevalent corporate blather. In their effort to mobilize change and accelerate the pace of commitment of nations and industries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, this youthful vanguard of close to 4,000 people braved the deepening cold on Saturday night, November 16th, to march many miles through downtown Warsaw and past the National Stadium for a rally at an outdoor amphitheater. 

As dawn broke on the morning of the 18th, early commuters to downtown Warsaw were greeted by a stark, powerful scene. A rank of over 40 people holding flags of various countries silently stood sentinel on the roof of the Polish government Ministry of Economy. (It was in this building that the coal industry conference had been convened the week before.)

Beneath the flag bearers, covering almost a dozen windows on the face of the old, grey building, hung a large red banner that read Who Rules Poland—Coal Industry or the People? ‘Greenpeace’ was written in small print on one corner. The banner had been deployed there in the near dark by four climbers in full gear who had lowered themselves into position from the roof. The whole Greenpeace contingent had been placed on the roof during the pre-dawn hours in the bucket of a rented mobile crane. 

The banner and accompanying flags stayed in place a little more than two hours. The climbers, still precariously suspended, were finally cut loose from their ropes and straps and roughly arrested by police officers operating out of the bucket of their own crane. The activists face charges that could result in prison sentences of up to 3 year.

Below them on the street, at the same time as the police were arresting the Greenpeace climbers, a large contingent of brilliantly costumed campaigners performed a series of theatrical tableaux. A coalition of several Warsaw-based NGO’s led by Bankwatch put together a strong little coal-bashing agitprop theater action. 

The most prominent visual was a pair of large, deep red inflatable lungs that pointed out the extreme health risks from burning coal. In an accompanying tableau, a series of physicians in white coats fanned themselves with piles of banknotes representing fees paid them for dealing with coal-related illnesses. The skits were performed in a decidedly festive atmosphere.

The Metz Report

Almost simultaneously with these demonstrations and street theatrics—and directly across the little square that separated the Ministry from the main thoroughfare—an event of even greater portent for the coal industry took place. In a meeting room off the upper lobby of the luxurious Sheraton Hotel, a press conference had been called to announce the joint statement of a team of 27 leading atmospheric scientists convened by the European Climate Foundation. Led by Dr. Bernard Metz of the Foundation and Professor P.R. Shukla. from the Indian Institute of Management, the report came as a direct response to the claim made at the World Coal Association’s International Coal and Climate Summit that “high efficiency coal is a low emissions technology”.

The paper is entitled, New unabated coal is not compatible with keeping global warming below 2 degrees Centigrade

Dr. Metz delineated some of the math. What it added up to was that coal use had to be reduced by 90% over the next 40 years in order for total CO2 emissions would not allow the world average temperature increase to exceed 2 degrees C . This figure had been discussed at Copenhagen (COP 15) in 2009 and agreed upon as the UN target in Cancun at COP 16. (There was an accompanying recognition that 1.5 degrees is scientifically preferable though at this stage politically less possible.)

According to Metz , this would require the coal companies to leave more than half their proven reserves in the ground. The fact that this would cause a huge write-down in the market value of the coal companies could not have been lost on directors and investors.

The only possible salvation for the companies, according to Metz, is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This is a technical process or a series of processes that ostensibly prevent a large percentage of coal-related CO2 from reaching the atmosphere. CCS is the process upon which the wildly oxymoronic concept of “Clean Coal” rests. It has become King Coal’s Last Stand.

Metz, a clearly restrained kind of guy, was not exactly ebullient with hope for the effectiveness of this heavily touted process, but he was unwilling to outright deny that something could come of it. His opinion was carefully hedged about with the kind of caveats that scientists deploy to avoid letting their own values dilute or seem to dilute their science. Even then, Metz’ presentation threw a full-body block at the knees of King Coal. This came just at the time when the King’s last offensive, CCS, potentially the most lucrative Hail Mary Pass of all time, was about to be launched on a large scale. 

Seen in light of the recent closing in the US of something like 150 coal-fired power plants and recent decisions by the US government, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to end support for new coal-powered plants anywhere, the Metz Committee report was potentially an out-and-out sack; maybe the best news to come out of Warsaw. Was King Coal indeed on the ropes? It was starting to look that way right there in Poland, Coal’s happiest European home. But how were we to know for sure that coal was on the run? Could CCS bring a new dawn for an ancient polluter?

Last Chance for King Coal

Finding answers required a trip back to the offices of the IETA, that small but red-hot corner where climate-climbing (as in ‘social climbing’) carbon traders regaled business friendly newcomers to the environment with fantasies of profit and of a gloriously functional CCS process. It was clearly the place to test the ultimatum Dr. Metz had laid down—Carbon Capture and Storage or no more coal!

Luck was with us. We arrived at the IETA offices just as a Meet-the-Experts presentation about CCS was coming to a close. We engaged two of the speakers, Brad Page, CEO and Mark Bonner, Principal Manager of the Global CCS Institute in an open, friendly conversation. They were exceedingly polite and receptive and as close to the horse’s mouth on this issue as could be gotten. 

No surprise—CCS as they described it is a highly technical, highly industrial process. (That usually means that there are large risks of capital involved and equal risks of massive mishaps.) We couldn’t add or subtract much to the conversation technically, but as we listened and asked honest questions, their description began to feel a little other-worldly, fading into greater obscurity as they strove to make it more comprehensible.

It began to sound like an old Bob Newhart routine in which a hypothetical late 19th century adult game company manger listens to Abner Doubleday on the phone trying to describe his new game, baseball, in all its crazy complexity. (“Why four balls Mister Doubleday?) It took me a moment to realize that the liturgy I was receiving was what their printed information referred to as “fact-based advocacy”.

The process itself has to do with converting the CO2 into a semi-liquid form in order to transport it through mostly existing pipelines or by rail or truck, then converting it back to a gas and pumping it deep (half a mile) into semi-porous rock formations that were chosen for their permeability and for the existence of a heavy “cap rock” over it that will in principle, keep the CO2 from rising back up—all this using how much energy no one seems to know,

Basically it could be seen as a way of filling back up some of the same deep, permeable reservoirs of rock that have been recently depleted by drilling and extraction of their oil—Makes a sort of sense; call it symmetry. Only thing is it’s a gas not a liquid and no one really knows how it will behave when it is pumped under pressure in ever vaster amounts into rock formations that once housed oil. How long before this stuff starts leaking or blows a hole through the cap rock? Will this stuff be monitored? For how long? 

At every response to our questions, the sheer Rube Goldberg quality of this business became more and more pronounced—albeit Rube Goldberg gone a grisly green. They kept reminding us that they were “working with nature”, plunging gigatons of expansive gases down deep into the earth….just as nature intended it. The ombudsmen for the process, Page and Bonner, say that the sky’s the limit (forgive the metaphor). The places to out this stuff are unlimited.

When they informed us that so far the process—in a scaled-down version—had only been used with consistent success in providing CO2 for carbonated drinks I actually started feeling sorry for these guys the way you feel sorry for a shoe salesman trying to sell really dumb shoes no one with any taste is ever going to wear. They were, after all, salesmen and they had a big, potentially very important product to pitch. 

In the long run, though, what they seemed to be peddling was just more hot air. If this is what the future of King Coal depends upon, then King Coal might consider abdicating now. It is a far cry from storing enough CO2 for carbonating the world’s sodas to having all the gas produced in the burning of thousands of coal-fired plants world-wide pumped deep into the ground. And even if it miraculously works cost-effectively, it will only reduce CO2 production from coal by an estimated 17%, far from that 90% figure Dr. Metz and his committee had laid out as essential.

Even if it worked, CCS would come too late for the thousands dead in the Philippines; too late for the Bangladeshi farmers whose fields have been flooded out or made saline; too late for those who Katrina drowned or Sandy left homeless or for those families in the U.S. Midwest sundered by tornados: too late for the Himalayan or Andean farmers dependent on glacial water; too late for too many.

The shades of the newly dead, the climate-killed, drifted through the halls of Poland’s national soccer stadium, permeated our thoughts and invaded our repose. Further delays, under these circumstances are unconscionable. There is grave danger. It is time to let go of many of our prerogatives, many aspects of our personal and national sovereignty. And yet, the rich nations cling to their money and their options tenaciously as if climate denial still ruled.

Finance: Mitigation, Adaptation and Loss and Damages

Since 2002, the financing of climate change responses had been broken down into two directives, mitigation which means direct CO2 reductions, and adaptation. These two elements, in principle, were to be supported by a new Green Climate Fund (GCF) that had first been proposed at Copenhagen by then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. She had proposed $100 billion of funding per annum, a healthy share to come from the US, starting in 202.

The need for the adaptation element was based on the growing awareness that the time had passed where we could still avoid all damage by mitigating with ambition. The need for adaptation in some ways was an admission of failure to mitigate in a timely fashion. We had waited far too long to invest. The fat was in the fire. In their turn, investments in adaptation had also been paltry at best, inadequate to address the need. So we arrive here today where storms, drought and wildfires of a never-before imagined intensity make it essential that we invest in simply helping people survive the damage.

Formerly referred to as Loss and Damages, this constitutes a third aspect of climate change at which financing needs to be directed. It covers situations, like in the Philippines, where significant work at adaptation had subsequently been overwhelmed by unprecedented extreme weather events. The developed countries, whose emissions were in good part to blame, worked behind the scenes in Warsaw to try to prevent establishment of a whole new, separate Loss and Damages mechanism. The US, among other wealthy nations, was dependably eager to keep Loss and Damages only an element of adaptation financing. To hear it from Todd Stern, the erudite, cheerless and sometimes mean-spirited chief negotiator for the US, there’s no need to rush, “no need to single out those nations who have the means to help from those who don’t. “

Climate Justice Again Deferred

Those suffering the most, of course, are in the Global South. and poor countries in general. They who have had the least opportunity to receive the benefits of development are suffering the most. We, the developed nations, who have the money and are the ones who filled up the atmosphere in the process of our development have to shoulder a large responsibility. There are clear and compelling moral, ethical and legal reasons why we have the responsibility to help. Under the UNFCCC catchphrase of CBDR (Common but differentiated responsibilities) we should be willing to assume our share of responsibility for the dangerous volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. With or without a moral imperative, the fact is that our turn in the North will come and who will be left to come to our aid. 

The Civil Society Rebellion

In the afternoon of Thursday, November 21st, the next to last day of COP 19, almost a third of the entire 3000 Civil Society attendees at the COP, representing an array of organizations including WWF, Greenpeace, Oxfam and the International Trade Union Confederation, walked out of the National Stadium. The participants in the walk-out gathered at first inconspicuously in a large vaulted hallway at one end of the stadium. At a signal, all of them either pulled on or revealed underneath their ordinary clothing white t shirts with the inscription 

 #COP 19 

A chaotic last-minute press conference followed at which representatives decried in strong terms the slothful progress of the negotiations and the reluctance of the developed countries gathered in Warsaw to make any real commitments.. In face of the Philippine disaster and the undeniable increase in other extreme weather events, further foot-dragging no matter what the reason was unconscionable. Kumi Naidoo, Director of Greenpeace International, one of the spokespersons for this action, castigated the COP for its “absolute lack of urgency”. He blamed several developing countries for “backsliding” and the Polish President of the COP, Marcin Korolec of making this a “Coal Cop”. They were walking out, he said “to generate a sense of emergency and to get our leaders to put more on the table.”

Then they marched, all 800 of them, down three escalators to the long covered corridor that led to the exit and then out into the cold afternoon. Their t-shirts had an inscription on the back as well. It read,

We Will Be Back

Whatever credibility the conference had left before the exodus of much of the civil society component was now gone. It should be noted, though, that some of the organizations marching out such as Oxfam and Greenpeace had, in some estimates compromised their values earlier by offering institutional support for some aspects of carbon trading and carbon markets. Some felt that, given this contradiction, the walkout had an element of grandstanding especially in light of the intent of the marchers to be at COP 20 in Lima.

It may be more accurate to interpret, though, that the walkout was a part of the increasing groundswell of dissenting expression that peppered the COP with intimations of untold tragedy in the offing. In this, it was a piece with the tearful lament of Yeb Sanyo, the chief negotiator for the Philippine team, that opened the COP on November 11th. or the deep sadness of the Shri Lankan negotiator at the end who said that “again our expectations have been shattered.”

It may well be that the impact of all these expressions of frustration, including that implied in the walkout, played a silent but telling role in last minute negotiations on Saturday, November 23rd concerning the status of a new financing mechanism, The Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts. It was gaveled in after a last minute compromise by developed countries related to the details of the wording to establish the mechanism. While it was not yet completely separated from Adaptation financing, its status as an entity was confirmed. This was the closest thing to a negotiated success in the conclusion of the COP; not much, but a sliver of hope for representatives of some of the poorer countries to bring home. Respected economist and director of South Centre, Martin Khor, called the Mechanism the major achievement of the 19th Conference of Parties. 

Those people who opined beforehand that this whole event was set up to fail from the start, turned out to be mostly right. No powerful new mitigations initiatives were launched in face of a deteriorating world climate. Beside a relatively token submission of funds to refill the empty Adaptation Fund, no meaningful amount of money was placed in existing accounts. As for existing initiatives, only the widely distrusted forest carbon program, REDD+ seem to have made progress in negotiations. There is the strong possibility that the Warsaw Mechanism may join the Copenhagen Accord, the Cancun Agreement, the Durban Platform and the Doha Climate Gateway in what history might call the bone yard of climate agreements.

The COP President, Korolec, was a shaved-headed Polish character who looked like he had been sent for the job by Central Casting from their lineup of gangland enforcer types. He was a coal executive’s dream of government leadership. He joined a lengthening cue of COP presidents who, starting with Patricia Espinosa in Cancun (COP 16), found fulfillment in their role by literally or figuratively gaveling down Parties who dissented from the basically coercive agreements. (Espinosa had broken down the consensus barrier that was one of the few guidelines keeping the UNFCCC defensible against cooption by the elites.)

The UNFCCC had tried to erect there in Warsaw a more clearly business friendly construct, a place where its corporate sponsors—the ArcelorMitals, the BMW’s, the Ikeas —could unashamedly roam, good citizens like in the old days just a few years ago when we could still ignore where in the evolution of our inept, profit-driven, fossil-based adaptations we actually stood. 

At a panel discussion we had attended earlier at the IETA, a smooth-talking corporate lawyer from Canada named Gray Taylor no doubt inadvertently revealed the dilemma we are in. He said that “there isn’t enough money in government (coffers) to respond to this crises.” His suggestion was that much of the money needed to stabilize the world’s climate systems is in private hands. Further, those hands are not going to willingly loosen their grip without a promise of “a reasonable rate of return”. Taylor suggested openly that investors will say, “Forget about saving the world. What are you going to bring us that makes money. ” He concluded his odd little homily by reminding us that “Nature bats last” and that she had “just batted pretty powerfully”.

Turning our hopes for a future over to those for whom these glaring contradictions are neither apparent nor outright loony seems unwise. Without major qualifications and oversight, partnering with them as in Warsaw will only serve to further accelerate the concentration of the world’s tangible wealth into fewer hands. It will also reduce rather than increase the possibility that we can mobilize the forces we need to meet the challenge. We will end up on a wounded planet where our children and grandchildren’s lives will be stunted at best and the extremely wealthy will gather in defensible enclaves feeding off their amassed fortunes until the knock comes at their door. 

List of the COP19 corporate partners:

  1. Alstom Power Sp. z o.o.
  2. ArcelorMittal Poland
  3. BMW Group Poland Sp. z o.o.
  4. Emirates Air
  5. Europress Poland Sp. z o.o.
  6. General Motors Poland Sp. z o.o.
  7. Lotos Group
  8. International Paper – Kwidzyn Sp. z o.o.
  9. Kaspersky Lab Poland Sp. z o.o.
  10.  LeasePlan Fleet Management ( Poland ) Sp. z o.o.
  11.  PGE Polish Energy Group
  12.  Ikea

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