COP24: Coal Country Hosts Climate Negotiations & Palestine the Ultimate Challenge
By: Ruba Anabtawi
Exclusive to Heinrich Böll Stiftung:
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) was held in Katowice, Poland on December 2-15, 2018. From the outset, Polish President, Andzej Duda, defended his country’s dependence on coal under the pretext of “energy security” and “development of industry based on efficient coal technologies”. While he did pride Poland’s reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, he also stressed that a country's dependence on its natural resources, explicitly citing coal in the case of Poland, does not in his opinion conflict with climate protection and progress. Coal is used to generate 80% of Poland’s electricity.
The effects of climate change are being felt globally, and Katowice, the host city of the COP24 is no exception. Jacob, who is a Polish volunteer at the conference, expressed to me his concern about the effects of climate change in his quiet city. He remembers how the snow-covered Christmas trees in the main squares were a common scene in his cold city. Now the snow is shifting to Mid-January and the Christmas season is very different.
Jacob’s concern, however, appears not to resonate quite the same for the host government of COP24. Bełchatów Power Station in Poland, the single most polluting power generation plant in Europe, puts the conference’s host country in a precarious position as it is hoped to represent a model for energy transition. In fact, the government of Poland tried to cover up its existing fossil fuel projects by advertising its intentions to expand forests. While the official position of the conference is to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, whether Poland is capable of carrying out an energy transition comparable to that goal remains to be seen. This is the second time that the country hosts the COP, the previous being COP19 in 2013 held in Warsaw, Poland. Back then, negotiations were stalled and pulled back to a point where civil society, trade unions and social movements walked out of the UN climate talks.
This intersected with the dominance of coal and natural gas companies over Germany's policy that delayed the implementation of the energy strategy 2020 (Oroschakoff, 2019) as well as indirectly with the American policy towards climate change as President Trump announced his administration’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which he described as "absurd". To make matters worse, the American delegation at COP24 organized an activity that actually promoted the benefits of using fossil fuels with higher efficiency, bringing to mind Trump’s repeated promises to revive the coal industry in the US through encouraging what he and other American politicians have called “clean coal”.
Furthermore, also as COP24 was about to commence, skepticism was rising with the circulation of news that Bolsonaro, the newly elected far-right president of Brazil, had withdrew his country’s offer to host the 25th conference the following year. The far-right president also intends to undermine protections of the Amazon’s natural resources and indigenous rights, which is raising fears among environmentalists and indigenous communities in Brazil.
Rulebook for the Paris Agreement, however!
The 200 countries that attended the conference in Poland agreed on a set of special rules to implement the Paris agreement, which was dubbed the “Katowice Climate Package”, but the rules governing carbon emissions were postponed due to disputes on carbon trading. And so COP24 ended without a commitment on countries’ targets to reduce emission by 2020.
According to Michal Kurtyka, the Secretary of State in Poland’s Ministry of Energy and Environment, the technical aspects reached at the end of COP24 were as follows:
1. An agreement on how to calculate greenhouse gas emissions.
2. How to assess collectively the effectiveness of climate action by 2023.
3. How to utilize technology development and transfer.
The insufficient response by world leaders to climate change during COP24 will undoubtedly delay the target set in the Paris Agreement of maintaining global average temperature increase below 2.0 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial levels and putting efforts to even limit this temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) raised the alarm with their warning that at the current pace, temperatures may rise up to 3 degrees above pre-industrial limits by 2100.
Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the United Nations scientific body in charge of assessing scientific findings related to climate change, released a historical report in October, 2018 emphasizing the drastic difference between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The report asserted the need to reduce the share of coal in electricity generation to below 30% by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change (Merchant, 2018). Additionally, the report explains that 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to prevent temperatures from rising above the 1.5 degrees target by 2030.
Expectations vs. Reality
COP24 was supposed to be a landmark conference to follow the Paris Agreement of 2015 and that discussion on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to represent effective steps to reduce global warming after a year of climate disasters. NDCs are the responsibility of each country towards reducing climate change. Due to the dominance of political and economic interests, the outcomes of the conference were disappointing from different aspects. Below are a few point showing the gap between what was hoped to be accomplished versus the reality of what took place.
1) IPCC Report:
- Expectation: The IPCC Report is welcomed by delegates and the ceiling of ambitions is raised considering the serious warnings of the report.
- Reality: the IPCC special report on 1.5 and the science behind it was ignored. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait did not welcome the IPCC Report, putting the conference at a deadlock from its outset and delaying the process of climate negotiations.
2) Poland as an Energy Transition Model:
- Expectation: The host country Poland shows genuine efforts to become a model for energy transition.
- Reality: Poland did not show any significant signs of its hoped transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. On the opposite, the speech of Polish president, Andzej Duda, seemed at certain instances to promote for the use of coal in Poland.
3) Climate Finance:
- Expectation: A clear mechanism on financial and technological assistance from developed countries to developing ones is agreed upon and corresponds to what hoped for in the Paris Agreement.
- Reality: Developed countries agree to provide financing to developing countries on climate change mitigation (i.e. limiting green gas emissions), however negotiations on finance for climate change adaptation, capacity building and transfer of technology were postponed to 2024.
4) Contributions to Climate Funding:
- Expectation: Developing countries to increase their funding to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) beyond the baseline amount of $100 billion per year pledged in Copenhagen in 2009 and ending in 2020. The GCF is the fund assisting developing countries in fulfilling their NDCs.
- Reality: Germany and Norway announced doubling of their funding and the World Bank pledged financial contributions up to $200 billion after 2021.
France, Sweden and Switzerland also made pledges to the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF). Russia announced that it would contribute as well.
However, it was disappointing that more countries did not step up with pledges to the Green Climate Fund at COP 24 (Thwaites, 2019).
5) The Role of the EU:
- Expectation: The EU presents a unified position and assumes a leadership role in COP24.
- Reality: Divisions among EU countries resulted in a weak position and lack of enthusiasm, especially in light of Britain's exit from the Union. COP24 also marked the failure of a country like Germany to abandon coal and Poland's insistence on fossil-fuel dependence.
6) Fossil Fuel Phase-out:
- Expectation: A strong decision on fossil fuel phase-out as the IPCC report asserted that a third of all oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves would need to remain in the ground for the international community to reach its goal of staying below a maximum two degrees Celsius global average temperature rise.
- Reality: The world's largest fossil fuel producers, the United States and Saudi Arabia, announced an agreement to increasing production of oil, and China shows no backing from reliance on cheap oil prices for rapid economic growth.
Palestine and Climate Change
Although Palestine’s contribution to greenhouse gases is very marginal (0.01%), especially once compared to developed countries like China (25.9%), a just transition pathway is a must for the country to achieve fair energy access despite the occupation's policies toward energy resources.
Palestine has been severely affected by climate change. As a part of the Eastern Mediterranean, it has been struck by a number of climatic changes, most notably drought due to lack of water resources and temperature increase. By the year 2050, the average temperature is projected to increase by two 2 degrees Celsius, rainfall will decrease by 15-30%, and this in turn will lead to desertification of lands and a reduction of groundwater. Water availability will be extremely problematic considering that there will be an increase in demand by 200-300% in the West Bank and 100% in Gaza by the year 2030 (Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability, 2018).
The Israeli occupation’s policies are the most significant obstacle to Palestinians being able to adapt to the climatic changes. Water restrictions on Palestinians has limited the expansion of wastewater treatment and reuse. This has led to a wastewater discharge rate of 60% into valley regions causing environmental pollution and health problems. Additionally, the transfer of around 622,670 settlers into the confined space of the occupied West Bank, including east Jerusalem, has led Palestinians to lose their land, their water and other natural resources.
The effects of climate change are particularly felt by Palestinian peasants and herding communities in the Jordan Valley and Southern Hebron Hills, where they are progressively cut off from their fresh water resources, restricted from access their lands and even driven off by the expanding settlements. However, city dwellers are affected as well, as they are confined in increasingly restricted and enclosed enclaves between settlements, settler streets and highways. Year after year they feel the increasing temperatures and suffocating heat waves, while their cities and towns use up all the free space in order to increase housing and infrastructure to accommodate the needs of the population that is losing its land to the occupation.
The Arab world and Palestine in particular are suffering great losses. In Palestine, the temperature increases over the years has impacted crop yields. In 2015, there was a recorded 100,00-ton loss of grape harvest. Heat waves reduced olive production by 20% in 2010. The estimated costs for incremental plan to climate adaptation will run up to $3.5 billion over the next 10 years. This will include measures for agriculture, water and alternative energy sectors (Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability, 2018).
The economic burden for climatic adaptation is compounded by the lack of political stability and sovereignty over natural resources. Palestine will not be able to fully adapt to any coming climatic changes unless it is allowed to in the first place, which will be extremely challenging with the continuation of the already over five-decade long occupation.