Just days after the strongest typhoon in history left 10,000 feared dead in the Philippines, the latest round of UN climate talks are getting underway in Warsaw, Poland. After the failure of the talks in Copenhagen in 2009 – when the US forced a weak, voluntary agreement on the conference – many have described these talks as zombies. The latest review of the physical science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that although we are currently on a path to a catastrophic 5C rise in global average temperatures, it is technically still possible to avoid dangerous climate change if we switch rapidly to a low-carbon pathway. As a veteran of the UN climate talks, what does Asad Rehman, head of energy and climate at Friends of the Earth think are the prospects of a meaningful outcome at this year’s talks? Phil England spoke to him for Ceasefire.
the latest IPCC report will inject a new urgency into the talks?
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Well we hope so. I don’t think we could have a more stark warning from the world’s climate scientists about the need for urgent and ambitious action. They’ve also very clearly set out that to prevent catastrophic climate change by preventing a breaching of key temperature thresholds, such as the two degree level – although a hundred developing countries, most of civil society and many climate scientists believe that a 1.5 degree level is much safer and that two degrees leaves us open to much more dangerous impacts – there is a limited carbon budget and we have to live within that. So now what we have to do is turn that into real political action.
Is it the warning bell? I think we’ve had 25 years of warning bells. There’s nothing in the report that we didn’t know before. The warnings are just starker, more grave. But then on a weekly level, we see a new report come out. This week the World Meteorological Organisation issued a report that said emissions are at their highest level and are increasing. So despite the stark warnings, despite the impacts in front of our eyes, despite the testimonies of millions of people around the world, we haven’t turned the corner yet.
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mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>PE: In terms of the power dynamics within the talks, the rich world seems to hold sway. They’re obviously better resourced and can bring bigger delegations. And the EU is central to that – they seem obsessed with this idea of carbon trading as the only solution. But there are genuine solutions on the table from the Global South and civil society. What kind of things should we be doing if we want to make a difference in the time frame the IPCC is saying we actually need now?
AR: Well I think the most critical one, you’re absolutely right to say, is the broken busted policy initiative, the carbon markets, which we have to step away from. There are proposals from some countries, like some ALBA countries, for a moratorium on new carbon markets to stop the headlong rush into new carbon markets even while existing ones fail. They don’t reduce carbon pollution and are wide open to the problems of both double counting and handing out “permits to pollute” to big dirty industry. For example, one of the sponsors of the climate negotiations this year is ArcelorMittal, the big steel multinational, which receives about €1.6 billion worth of free “permits to pollute” from the emissions trading system – the European carbon markets system. So I think we’ve got to stop those. And there are real solutions on the table such as proposals on global feed-in-tariffs to finance energy transformation throughout the world. Much more concrete, more direct. Not only dealing with the climate crisis but also with the fact that over a billion people around the world don’t have access to any energy at this moment. It can be a win-win for both people and the planet and from a climate perspective as well a social and economic perspective. So those are the things that many of us will be fighting for and are hoping to see some positive outcomes on.
a meeting of finance ministers in Warsaw as part of the talks. They can’t just leave it to the carbon markets or private finance like they always seem to suggest, can they? We need something more.
AR: Well unfortunately that seems to be what countries like the United States and others have been proposing, that even the paltry $100 billion that was promised in Copenhagen from 2020 onwards, will come largely either from carbon markets, in the form of loans, or as private capital directly to multinationals. But this is being challenged. We need to see real solutions, like a financial transaction tax, like special drawing rights, like reducing our military expenditure. There are many different budgets and finances out there that can be redirected to ensure that we have adequate finance and that developed countries fulfil their legal as well as their moral and political obligation to help developing countries grow cleanly and face the climate impacts that are already being felt by millions if not billions of people.
we’re subsidising fossil fuels to the tune of £6 for every £1 we spend subsidising renewal energy and spending over $500 billion a year globally subsidising fossil fuels. This just has to end doesn’t it?
AR: Absolutely and this has been one of the demands echoing around the world over the last month. Many different organisations came together in a global month of action called Reclaim Power, which brought together Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, 350.orog, Jubilee South, Via Campesina and many others to amplify and echo a message that resonates with many different communities and struggles, which is to stop all new dirty energy projects, end tax payer handouts to dirty energy corporations and support decentralised energy systems. In terms of direct and indirect subsidies to big oil and other big fossil fuel industries, the estimates range from half a trillion to about 1.3 trillion dollars. Even here in the UK we hand out every year hundreds of millions of pounds to the oil and coal industry to continue to pollute. We give tax breaks to the fracking industry so that they can continue with their environmentally dangerous and carbon polluting processes. So those have to be stopped and we have to redirect those [funds] to renewable and safer energy systems that are going to save the planet, [as well as] help provide new green jobs for the millions of people who are facing the crisis of austerity.
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mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>PE: The Polish presidency seems to be shameless in its association with some of the worst polluters. They’ve got them all on board as sponsors this year and they’re also holding a world coal conference at the same time. What are they thinking? How are we expected to get anything useful with a presidency that thinks coal is part of the solution?
AR: Absolutely and it’s a very deliberate and provocative move by the Polish presidency but they, I think, are only the most visible and the most open. When you hear the Polish government openly say in their own domestic parliament and press that the reason that they want to host the COP was to ensure their political and economic interests were safeguarded, they were just being much more explicit than other developed countries. It’s the equivalent of the United States saying the lifestyle of an American citizen is not up for negotiation. That’s an impossibility when an American citizen is personally responsible for over 20 tonnes of CO2 [per year] while those in Africa have a footprint of less than one [tonne]. A toddler by the age of one year in New York will have emitted more CO2 than someone in Tanzania will emit in their whole lifetime. The gross inequality, inequity of our system needs to be challenged. And there are lots of very powerful figures and interests who just don’t want that to happen.
So yes the Poles are being more explicit about the dirty energy sponsorship, [vested interests] are sponsoring everything from the pens, paper, water coolers, water cups, even the building itself, and they’re trying to give those dirty energy corporations a much more powerful and enhanced voice in the climate negotiations. But let’s not be fooled that that’s something new. It’s just that many corporations have been doing their dirty work behind closed doors at a national level.
But this is being challenged. The “clean coal” summit for example will become the focus of large civil society protests, with people coming together from the trade union movement, environment, development, as well as communities impacted by dirty coal all around the world simply saying, ‘No, coal does not have a future,’ and ensuring that the energy mix we do have for the future is clean, safe and affordable.
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