Peru and France promise to restore soul to UN climate process

Hosts of critical summits in 2014 and 2015 promise civil society its voice will be heard after Warsaw walkout

By Ed King in Warsaw

Warsaw’s UN climate talks were a duller place without the hundreds of civil society campaigners who were here until yesterday. Poland’s National Stadium has lost its fans, while the players hide in the dressing rooms, refusing to even have a kickabout.

Ministers taking part in the ‘high-level session’ read statements as the NGOs departed, few bearing much link with reality. Kuwait sent its Ambassador to Poland, who said a “more efficient oil sector” was the Emirate’s contribution to a low carbon future. Australia’s Justin Lee mumbled something about a climate policy review, and left the stage a minute before his slot expired.

Green groups, the Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries are a collective conscience for these talks. When they go, so does the humanity. At its heart the UN climate change process is about economics and cash. It’s about suits in bland office blocks running models, calculating how much a human life costs and what an 100-year-old tree should be valued at. Those suits now patrol the corridors, untroubled by youth groups bearing signs screaming ‘shame’. When NGOs walked out, the stadium relaxed.

Reports today indicate the Warsaw summit is inching towards a close, albeit amid angry exchanges between the EU and Venezuela. Agreements on forests, the adaptation fund and a weak but workable 2015 global deal text could take it over the finish. Loss and damage is still being fleshed out, but experts RTCC has spoken to believe it’s 80-90% there. Saleemul Huq from the International Institute for Environment and Development talks of a win-win, where both sides can sell it as a success. Such is life at UN talks, when no result is quite as clear as it seems.

New game plan

But what next? Where do NGOs go now? There may be applause at some time in the next 48 hours, if COP19 President Marcin Korolec brings down his wooden hammer to signal an end to the 2013 summit. He will be slapped on the back, and welcomed into the UNFCCC hall of fame. But there is no hiding the unpleasant taste this summit has left in many mouths. Not so much because of the low ambition of the summit: that was expected by anyone who had observed the build-up. I understand the anger was more a result of the flagrant way the hosts showcased their attachment to high carbon business.

I sensed a sadness among the campaigners who left yesterday. There was a sense of disbelief that a conference focused on climate change had been sponsored by leading coal producers. That the hosts had been complicit in spreading misleading climate change messages on the official website. That behind the scenes Poland had – and is – actively trying to undermine EU efforts to develop a low carbon economy. And that the President of the conference Marcin Korolec was sacked from his role as Environment Minister for a man determined to accelerate the country’s search for shale gas.

The coal industry will reflect on a job well done. Its salesmen often sound like a man selling a wheelbarrow at the start of the automobile age, but they have been rehabilitated by this COP. They even had the UN climate chief turn up at their global summit, leaving them weeping tears of pure lignite. Christiana Figueres delivered an uncompromising message, but judging from the interviews RTCC gathered afterwards, few of the mine owners were listening. Her presence gave them legitimacy. What she had to say was irrelevant.

Some have talked of the NGO exodus as a retreat, a sign they have lost their way and critically lost any leverage in a process infiltrated by big business. Certainly many big green groups were left battered by Copenhagen in 2009, and had to radically work on a new strategy. But the idea Warsaw was a strategic defeat for civil society is strongly rejected by Greenpeace UK’s political director Ruth Davis, who says instead it’s a warning to governments that they need to think how they – and this process – get legitimacy.

“I’m leaving the meeting feeling pretty disgusted by the way this COP became a showcase for coal. But I’m more determined than ever to create pressure for real action on climate change. 2014 has to see a huge increase in ambition – and a huge decrease in the influence of the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s extremely important for civil society to express anger when governments roll back on international commitments and promises made.  In a world of finite resources, we all depend for our future peace, security and prosperity on the rule of law, and on meaningful international co-operation.”

Whatever Poland’s motivations behind the heavy level of corporate sponsorship at the summit – these events do cost money – it may be the last climate summit coated in coal for a while. Civil society will have gained succour from the words of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and Peru’s Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal Otalora today. Peru is set to host the 2014 UN talks, with Paris home to the 2015 summit. Fabius described NGOs as a “key partner”, promising to have “permanent contact” with civil society, starting with a series of meetings in January. “This is what we do in France,” he said, a non-too-subtle dig at the current hosts.

Pulgar-Vidal says his team is already working on ways to build the voices of civil society into the Lima meeting. “Before being a minister I was Executive Director of an NGO, and I have more than 20 years of experience with these groups,” he said. “I hope I can bring my experience with all the Peruvian team to bring civil society to the table, and make a more confident atmosphere to reach something.” The Minister added they had “no plans” to stage any fossil fuel summits on the sidelines. “What we will not do is create something that is not too sensible to the people, because if we want to create confidence, we need to be careful on how we are moving forward.”

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