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Cop26 - can the UN save the Earth? Perspective from Poland

By Anna Strzałkowska

The 26th Conference of the Parties

The United Nations can be critiqued for many reasons. The organisation’s approach to climate change mitigation is often said to be too managerial, as a result of the crisis management techniques that the UN adopts in order to tackle the biggest environmental threats. Another often-mentioned criticism is the lack of proper representation, both when it comes to IPCC reports' authorship and countries’ COP delegation teams. For example, considering the 6th IPCC report, due to be completed in 2022, only 33% of the authors are women. This influences whose voices are being heard, in turn impacting which ideas for climate change mitigation strategies are most supported.

Still, the Conference of the Parties, organised by the UNFCCC, is one of humanity’s best opportunities to tackle climate change. COP is the biggest, and truly the only global negotiations event, where world leaders come together to talk about climate change and agree on potential mitigation measures. The most recent climate summit in Glasgow aimed to formulate a strategy to achieve the crucial goal of staying below the 1.5°C of global warming, as agreed by world leaders in 2015 in Paris. For the agreement to pass, all the parties had to agree on the final version of the document, even though the measures adopted are not legally binding. This also means that, realistically, every country can set their emission reduction goals the way it suits them. What does this mean for Poland and other countries?

Why we should not talk bad about COP

Fiona Harvey, a Guardian Environment correspondent recently claimed that the energy spent criticizing the leaders who led to negotiation ‘failures’ is actually very unproductive. Such was the case with Copenhagen in 2009, when, in light of the negotiations failing, a small group of countries imposed the agreement called the Copenhagen Accord onto all the other states. Nevertheless, Fiona Harvey explains that labelling COP’s as unsuccessful can halt momentum and prevent further action. This year, a lot of focus was directed towards India, as the country insisted on the wording of the final agreement to specify that coal should be phased down and not out. This one-word change will influence the targets that countries set, as well as the urgency of decarbonisation overall. Still, it is easy to critique countries such as India, without acknowledging the nuances of the situation. Decarbonising is not as easy as it seems, and some countries possess certain advantages over other nations.

A deeper dig into the context does show that decarbonising is a complicated matter. Take two countries, Poland and Germany. With somewhat similar geographies and reserves of natural resources, although very much different political cultures, opportunities and challenges throughout modern history, it is worth comparing the current energy mix of both nations. In 2020, 71% of electricity in Poland came from coal, 9% from natural gas, and only around 11% from renewables. In Germany however, according to various sources, in the first half of 2021, renewables accounted for between 41 and 48% of the overall share of energy sources. Coal, however, was responsible for just 26% of energy production. Another German advantage is the fact the country sourced 10% from nuclear., which is the case despite the country’s plan to close all the nuclear reactors by the end of 2022. Still, even the smallest amount of nuclear energy is beneficial when transitioning to a cleaner energy mix.

As the German energy composition depends much less on coal than renewables, it might have well influenced the change in the coal phase out date from 2038 to 2030. Activists were quick to compare Germany’s new target with the Polish one, which currently stands at the year 2049. Poland should definitely take on ambitious targets, although, once again, it is neither as easy nor as straightforward as it seems. In order to phase out coal, both public and private sectors need to come together. Massive investments are required to modernise the electricity grid, integrate heat, transport, and electricity all together. Ideally, the aim should also be to seek community engagement so that individuals can directly benefit from renewables, causing higher public support. This shows that targets set as a result of COP negotiations should be praised, although they also need to be realistic.

Is Poland really that bad?

Even though Poland is often thought to be one of the biggest emitters, it is important to look at various measures. Per capita emissions, the emissions divided by country’s population, often present a much more accurate picture than looking at countries’ total emissions. For example, as of the end of 2021, it turns out that Germany emitted more than Poland. Although the difference is small, the average German citizen is responsible for producing 7.8 tonnes of CO2, with an average Pole guilty of 7.5 tonnes. At the same time, the UK is well behind both countries, with per capita emissions standing at 5.1 tonnes. Mentioning the UK calls for pointing out another measure - the concept of historic emissions. The changing climate that we experience now is the effect of the emissions from the 1990s if not earlier. It is important then, to look at how different countries contributed to this, not only 5 or 10 years ago, but in the past century. According to Carbon Brief, the top 3 countries that have the biggest historical responsibility for emissions causing climate change are the US, China, and Russia. The 6th place goes to Germany and the 8th to the United Kingdom.

As a matter of fact, the UK is another country that journalists take as an example of good practice when it comes to environmental sustainability, especially when it comes to private transport. The theoretical basis for the transition from diesel cars to electric vehicles is that rising coal prices, linked to its scarcity, will cause innovation. As a result, manufacturers will invest heavily in research and development, moving away from producing regular diesel cars. However, even though we can see the personal vehicles market moving towards electric cars, the charging infrastructure, or the lack of chargers, still proves itself to be a barrier to many individuals who would otherwise consider getting an EV. To compare the numbers of chargers between the UK and Poland, there are over 25 thousand charging points in the former and only 2 thousand in the latter. With such a developed infrastructure, it seems reasonable that the UK government decided that by 2030, car manufacturers will not be allowed to sell diesel cars. Would activists want to see Poland announce the same? Obviously. But would it be practical? Not really.

What does it all mean?

The above is not about deciding who is most guilty but about a fair approach to sustainable development. The reality is that some countries are able to invest in decarbonisation infrastructure because of the historic emissions that directly and sometimes indirectly brought them wealth. There is a lot of bad that can be said both about the UN’s managerial approach to the environment, as well as about Polish environmental governance strategies. But who is the real enemy? Global Witness, an organisation focussing on environmental campaigners, found that the group of COP26 delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry outnumbered any other team of national delegates. Maybe more attention should be directed towards the most environmentally damaging industry, rather than focussing on individual countries?

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