The Summit To Nowhere

By Bill McGuire

The insanity of it! The crass stupidity. Not only is this week’s critical UN Climate Summit taking place in a country where coal is king – generating eighty percent of its electricity – but it is hosted by the coal mining city of Katowice. Make no mistake, despite the flim-flam on the conference website about its alleged green credentials, this is a city built on coal and powered by coal, which is home to Poland’s biggest coal company.

And it gets worse. In our neo-liberal, everything-monetised, world, no big event can be left un-sponsored, and this year’s climate summit is no exception. What sort of organisations might you expect to attach their names to arguably the world’s biggest ‘green’ event? Maybe the builders of wind turbines or solar farms, or perhaps those involved in sustainable reforestation or carbon capture. But no, the Polish government has permitted – not to say encouraged – a pair of coal companies to become official sponsors. You really couldn’t make it up. But then, the Polish government has a history of this sort of abject and disgraceful behaviour. The last time the country hosted a UN climate conference was in Warsaw in 2013. Then, the Polish Ministry of Economy teamed up with the World Coal Association to host an international coal and climate summit in parallel with the UN event. One of the planet’s greatest despoilers piggy-backing on the high-profile of those trying to clean up their mess. It’s like a sick joke.

And to add to the feeling that the whole thing is taking place in some weird alternative reality, the summit attracts its usual bunch of crazies, fossil fuel apologists and neocon ideologues to its fringes. Topping the bill in Katowice, at an event held nearby by the US Right-wing lobby group, The Heartland Institute, will be a small gang of climate deniers. These despicable cranks will no doubt delight their audience by telling them (a) that climate change is not happening; (b) that if it is, humans are not the cause; or (c) even if we are, it’s nothing to worry about – possibly all three simultaneously.

As if all this is not enough, the chance of anything worthwhile coming out of Katowice – anything concrete that will give us hope – is vanishingly small. The goal of the summit is flagged as being to set down the rules by which the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will operate. That’s right – three years on there are still no mechanisms in place that will allow the translation of the vague promises of Paris into measures that will actually reduce emissions in the real world. You certainly can’t accuse these guys of rushing things. The so-called Paris Rulebook is supposed to determine how governments record and report their greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to cut them. But it doesn’t matter how well you record and report progress, bugger-all is still bugger-all.

Whether or not a rulebook pops out at the end of this week’s summit is going to make very little difference to the chances of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C or even  2.0°C. It is perfectly clear, to those able to see past the obfuscation, deceit, hyperbole and misplaced confidence, that the emissions reductions promises made in Paris – even if they are kept – are nowhere near enough to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown. Certainly, they will not get us anywhere near the 45 percent emissions drawdown by 2030 that the IPCC now demands, which, in itself, is nowhere near enough.

Let’s face it, this whole way of doing things just isn’t working. Summits every year, excruciatingly complex emissions reduction plans that require a 500 page plus rulebook, accommodating fossil fuel companies, keeping big polluters happy just to keep them on board, talking up our chances of keeping our world cool. None of these things are going to get us where we want to be, which is NZ7 – net zero emissions in seven years. What we need instead is an immediate ban on all fossil fuel subsidies, carbon taxes that will make it uneconomic to get hydrocarbons out of the ground, a ‘war on climate change’ economy that embraces personal carbon ration cards, the retooling of industry to drive a crash programme in wind and solar, electric vehicles and infrastructure, energy efficiency and carbon capture, the imposition of NZ7 emissions pathways for all businesses, a ban on deforestation and a massive programme of new planting.

If this all sounds draconian, that’s because it is. If we had taken the climate change threat seriously nearly four decades ago, when it started to be seen as a clear and present danger, we could have turned things around by now, slowly and steadily. Instead, we chose to ignore it, so that emissions are still rising and our world is on the cusp of catastrophe. Sorting the problem now is going to demand big sacrifices by everyone, but the only alternative is to pass on even greater sacrifices to our children and those that follow.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

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