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World climate talks start in coal-reliant Poland

A participant's shilouette is seen during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, 2 December, 2018.
A participant's shilouette is seen during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, 2 December, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Envoys from 200 countries are gathered in Katowice, southern Poland to follow up on 2015's Paris climate change summit. But, given that the city is the centre of a coal-mining region, some are sceptical that the host nation is serious about kicking the fossil-fuel habit.


The annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) opened a day early, to allow negotiators extra time to make progress.

Time is of the essence. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world has 8 years left to limit climate change catastrophe.

Its impacts "are increasingly hard to ignore," four presidents of previous UN climate summits said in a rare joint statement on Sunday, warning that the planet "is at a crossroads."

Wildfires in California and severe flooding in Japan, have underscored the existential threat posed by global warming.

Experts say that drastic cuts in emissions will be needed if the world is to reach the Paris pledge of keeping temperatures between 1.5C and 2C.

"We simply cannot tell millions of people around the globe who are already suffering from the effects of climate change that we did not deliver”, Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s Climate Chief said.

Momentum nonetheless has waned since the 2015 Paris agreement, while CO2 emissions on the other hand have galloped. They hit a record high in 2017.

It will thus be up to host nation Poland to push for more ambitious emissions cuts.

But can it go without coal?

Although Poland has reduced its share of coal in power generation, the Central European country still gets close to 80% of its electricity from the fossil fuel.

Furthermore, the country is located in the heart of the Silesian coal basin where tens of thousands of families rely on mining “black gold” for a living.

Poland meanwhile is still pushing ahead with controversial plans for a major coal power plant that the Environment Ministry promises will be the last.

In a recent interview to Le Monde newspaper, Poland's Environment Minister Michal Kurtyka defended the decision to hold the COP24 conference in Katowice, saying the region was "experiencing radical transformation."

Part of this is to do with natural causes. Poland's coal reserves are running out and the cost of producing coal is much higher than renewables.

A "just transition"

To ensure that the move towards a renewable future is fair, Polish authorities are pushing the concept of a "just transition" for fossil fuel industries like coal which are facing closures as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We need a caring transition," reckons Kurtyka, at a time where protests against “green” fuel tax hikes gather pace in France.

Some critics are concerned this mid-way approach may not deliver.

"Poland's current populist (PiS) government shows no signs of wanting to change course," says Oliver Sartor, a researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI).

"Their recently released energy plan would basically see the amount of coal stay the same in the energy mix until 2030," he told RFI.

Ambition now

Yet there will be no room for foot-dragging.

"All our focus should be on (...) building up ambition towards the Paris Agreement's aims of limiting global warming to well below 2ºC and pursuing efforts towards 1.5ºC,” UN Climate Chief Espinosa stressed.

While the agreement was ratified in record time by more than 180 countries in 2016, it doesn't become operational until 2020.

Before then, delegates must sort out common rules on measuring and reporting greenhouse emissions and efforts to cut them. That will be the main issue at stake at this COP24.

Getting there won't be easy. But the planet's future will depend on it.

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