Nations Retreat From Targets At Warsaw Climate Talks


Conferences on global warming are notorious for geopolitical brawls and NGO anger. Even so, Warsaw’s “informal” climate change consultations at times seemed more about diplomatic gestures than preserving the planet.

The conference opened in the aftermath of yet another huge natural disaster, South-East Asia’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan, and as the talks continued amidst much infighting, a mini-cyclone described by locals as “apocalyptic” battered Sardinia. 

Sandy, Katrina, Haiyan. The list of “unprecedented” natural disasters has been growing longer and longer. Scientists have become more and more confident in linking them to global warming. One prominent researcher, Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, told Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano on Thursday:

“Given that the decade between 2000 and 2010 was the hottest on record, it has become impossible to say that any storm is free of the influence of global warming.”

Yet while scientists have made ever more bold predictions, the agreement reached on Saturday – which commits nations to presenting emissions plans by early 2015 ahead of yet more talks – again gives the world’s leaders ample time to delay making policy commitments on global warming.

Across Europe, papers of all ideological hues condemned the inability of governments to do more on climate change this weekend.

“Two weeks of negotiations, dozens of drafts and hundreds of meetings in Warsaw has ended with a deal that presages very modest advances” in the fight against global warming, commented Barcelona’s La Vanguardia on Sunday. In Europe, there is close to a political consensus from left to right on the risks posed by climate change.

Here, governments have watched closely as Japan and Australia have announced reversals on climate change policy. Tokyo’s post-Fukushima retreat from ambitious climate targets has received the most attention among media and governments this week.

Canberra’s prominent somersault with a triple pike on the issue has not gone unnoticed. Spain’s El País highlights Tony Abbott’s remarks to the Tasmanian Liberal Party Conference in October, when the Prime Minister denounced the Gillard government’s carbon tax as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.

France’s Le Monde points to the new government’s shutdown of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and to the possible end of the carbon tax. “Australia gives up its weapons in the fight against global warming,” the paper’s headline reads.

Meanwhile, Italian environmental news site Il Villaggio Globale says that Australia’s change in tack on the issue proves that Australians “live on another planet, one where a long series of floods and then fires did not take place on their territory”.

In Europe, on the other hand, governments have made an on-paper commitment to cutting emissions. By 2020, the EU intends to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent on 1990 levels.

At the same time, the EU has joined the US and Australia to shrug off calls for firmer pledges on climate aid, ones could help developing nations mitigate the worst effects of wild weather and shifting ecosystems.

Taken generally, the EU climate policy right now is something closer to à la carte than across the board. While some prominent EU nations – such as Germany and Great Britain – have been strong supporters of carbon cuts, others have been more reticent.

Take Poland, for instance. This month’s summit host is among Europe’s worst “climate criminals”, opines German business daily Handelsblatt:

“In Bełchatów, there’s the world’s largest coal-powered thermal fuel power plant – and one of the largest brown-coal power stations in the world,” an Handelsblatt analyst says.

“[Poland] is Europe’s biggest carbon emitter and the country’s power stations are out of date,” Handelsblatt adds. That’s because Poland produces 90 per cent of its energy from those aging plants, the paper says.

And there is little sign that Warsaw will be reversing strategy any time soon, either. Polish environment minister Marcin Korolec, the summit host, was sacked just days from the end of the Warsaw meeting:

“His replacement, Maciej Grabowski says his priority is exploring for shale gas reserves,” says Portuguese daily Público. “We could become a leader in that technology in the next few months,” the paper quotes Grabowski as saying.

For the Polish government, energy independence has long been seen as a more valuable commodity than clean energy. That’s largely because the Polish government fears reliance on energy imports from Russia and Germany.

Moscow’s increasing grip on the European energy market through gas behemoth Gazprom has only redoubled the Polish government’s commitment to Polish energy sources in recent years.

To the West, Germany has long styled itself as Europe’s green champion. Berlin has committed to implementing an “energy revolution” in the coming decades.

The policy is tantamount to the eventual phase out of fossil fuels and nuclear power in favour of renewable energies. By 2050, Germany plans to generate 100 per cent of its power through renewable energy.

The political management of the transition has become one of Angela Merkel’s trickiest dossiers. Coal and power companies have mounted an effective campaign against energy levies imposed on consumers to pay for research into renewable technologies.

Merkel’s soon-to-be coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are also perceived by many Germans as close to big coal, a heavily unionised industry. It’s rumoured they have been putting her under pressure to water down her commitment to green energy.

Documents released last week show that Merkel herself has repeatedly met with fossil fuel lobbyists in recent years. As a result, there’s been repeated speculation that Merkel could be about to ditch the energy revolution of late.

“We Germans shouldn’t get on our high horses” on climate change, comments the Frankfurter Rundschau. “After all, our CO2 emissions have been rising again.”

Recent emissions rises here don’t tell the full story on German emissions policies. On the one hand, Germany has made large cuts to carbons emissions already in recent decades, though mainly due to the shutdown of CO2-heavy Eastern German industry. On the other, like many other nations, carbon emissions have risen as the country’s economy has expanded in recent years.

For Berlin, as for the rest of the world, severing the linkage between economic growth and rising carbon emissions may prove to be the biggest challenge in the fight against global warming. The scientific evidence indicates that doing so is necessary, if leaders want to maintain the viability of large parts of the developing world.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.