Has Poland given up on climate mitigation?

By John Parnell

One year ago, Poland’s Environment Minister Marcin Korolec was fronting efforts by the EU to close out a deal at the UN climate change talks in Durban. The EU formed an alliance with some of the world’s most vulnerable nations and took much of the credit for the resulting Durban platform.

In the past week, Korolec has talked down the potential success of efforts to reduce emissions, the main objective of the Durban Platform and the Kyoto Protocol. He suggested that perhaps accepting our lot and focusing on adapting to a new normal should take precedence.

Korolec was referring to the recent PwC report stating that current pledges to reduce emissions, leave us heading for 6°C of warming. The report calls for more urgency to slash greenhouse gases deeply and quickly. Interpreting the study as the signal to wave the white flag says more about Poland’s position on climate change than it does about any ambiguity in the PwC report.

At the heart of Poland’s dim look on ambitious climate change targets is its high carbon energy mix. This has motivated a drive within the EU to stymie environmental efforts. It has lobbied for unabated shale gas development and has even been accused of using its secret police to silence environmental activists.

Given the country generates 93% of its electricity from coal, it is easy to see why it would be reluctant to embrace regulations that make this carbon intensive form of energy more expensive.

“They have a national vested interest for there not to be ambitious climate mitigation goals because of their current energy mix,” says Kat Watts, international climate policy advisor with WWF. “It’s an indigenous energy supply which gives them security in a way that a move to [foreign] gas would not.”

While Watts sympathises that any transition to lower carbon energy would have knock-on social and economic effects, she says Poland has so far shown no interest in plotting a long-term future away from coal that could negate these.

Splitting the EU

Back in Brussels,  the country has been credited with numerous vetoes to EU climate action, the latest being over the issue of Assigned Amount Units (AAUs). In short, these are the emissions allowances from the first period of the Kyoto Protocol, which finishes at the end of this year. A combination of the recession and a reduction in heavy industry throughout Eastern Europe means huge numbers of these tradable carbon credits were not used.

Korolec says it is a reward for their good work reducing their emissions. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say Poland has done nothing to address climate change as their lead negotiator Tomasz Chruszczow told us at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in May.

The country has reduced its carbon intensity significantly in the last 20 years and has also conducted a significant reforestation programme.  To say that is the only reason this stockpile of AAUs has emerged, would also be disingenuous.

The countries with extra credits, unsurprisingly, want to have them carry over to the second commitment period of Kyoto, which, if this month’s UN climate talks go well, will commence from January 1, 2013.

Doing so would effectively issue them with a licence to emit and cancel out a chunk of pledged emissions reduction. The Kyoto Protocol would lose integrity and the knock-on effect would be a (further) loss of trust at the UN climate talks from the most vulnerable countries.

At a European Council meeting in Luxembourg last month, Poland was accused of digging its heels in on the issue of AAUs with Reuters quoting EU officials talking of “an east-west divide” and the possibility of the split to jeopardise a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

“Poland wants to sell these onto the market, it views them as an asset. It has to support a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol because that’s the framework that will allow these credits to go forward,” says Watts.

Poland is resisting efforts by its fellow EU members to scrap AAUs sparking a whole new debate about whether it even has the right to veto EU decisions.

WWF pressed hard with the eventual concession that consensus was indeed an informal arrangement, not one written into EU law.

Korolec insists there will be no need for the country to use this informal veto however.

A recent amendment to the European Parliament’s proposal on a position in Doha, included a paragraph stating that the “informal consensus” was holding up climate action and should be set aside for a return to weighted voting.

RTCC asked Minister Korolec about this amendment but he vehemently denied that the AAU issue was an obstacle to EU climate action.

The split in the EU could now create problems at the next round of UN climate talks in Doha leaving the group to heal its own rift while negotiating with the rest of the world.

“I think we could see the EU ministers spending a lot of time talking to each other in Doha in the last few days,” says Watts.

“There’s a strong proposal on the table from the G77+China group of developing countries.Now we have the G77 united around a common position that puts the EU in a much weaker position. The EU will basically not be able to say anything at all unless it can come up with a common position of its own.”

With the country bidding to host next year’s UN climate negotiations, COP 19, Poland’s influence on global climate action is unlikely to diminish. Host nations contribute more than a buffet and a conference centre. The host president steers the negotiations, choosing how to address key topics as they emerge and dedicating extra time to certain points on the agenda as they see fit. Perhaps by then, with the AAU issue resolved, the country can play a formative role in securing its own low carbon future.

RTCC Video: Tomasz Chruszczow defends Poland’s climate action

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