Is humanity in peril due to climate change? The much-publicised underwater meeting of the Maldavian cabinet 2009, just about two months before the 15th UN Conference on Climate Change (COP 15), was deemed to have already responded to that question, albeit symbolically.
Maldavian ministers, led by then President Mohamed Nasheed, literally went down in the shallow waters off the island of Girifushi, one of the nearly 1,000 that make the Maldives most vulnerable to climate change. They then got down to the business of governance by communicating through hand gestures.
Some critics dismissed that meeting as a publicity stunt. Many in the diplomatic world, however, judged it a remarkable and bold gesture. It was considered a clarion call to global consciousness on issues that must be hammered out at the COP 15 in Copenhagen.
The most intense climate campaigner among the then Heads of State, Nasheed wanted to create awareness about not just the plight of the small-island countries in the wake of the rise in sea levels but also the extinction of life on Earth as hinted in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that went on to win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Come 2018 — and three years after Paris Climate Agreement — COP 24 is now being held, literally, on top of one of Poland’s deep coal mines. It is yet not clear if it is another bold experiment by Poland’s young President, Andrzej Duda, to draw the attention of the international community to the darker side of the long and fatally flawed international efforts in addressing one of the deadly sources of climate change.
The conference is underway (December 2-14) in the region called the Upper Silesian Basin, known for the deep mines of lignite, hard and dirty coal. These are not just Poland’s largest operating coal mines, but the mine workers there are the key deciding factors in Polish politics.
The conference venue, Katowice, not far from Krakow where President Duda comes from, is in a busy mining area with strong political clout. The region is the home to the European Union’s largest coal producers. Needless to emphasise, ownership of these coal mines is not just Polish but other European countries as well. So, the roots of the mining are not only deep but, in a globalised world, have spread far and wide.
As if to broadcast the “reality-show” and to make the green movement extremely anxious, many of the events on the margins of COP 24 are financed by the coal-mining companies.
Until the affordable access to alternate fuel that provides similar employment and prosperity to Polish workers, sticking with coal is the only option for the Polish government. To hammer home the point, the government recently announced it is planning to invest in the construction of a new coal mine in Silesia.
By selecting it as venue for COP 24, Poland is making audacious efforts to raise global consciousness and awareness on the stark ground reality of the global war to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our times. A positive message from Katowice and the Upper Silesian basin is that the world needs to eliminate coal through techno-political-social solutions and not just through “clean coal”-like soft technological options.
What is the stark and dark reality? Nearly 80 per cent of the electricity in Poland is derived from coal. Globally, coal is the single-largest contributor to the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, in this case carbon dioxide. On a weight-by-weight basis, coal produces 30 per cent more GHGs than oil and 50 per cent more than natural gas. It is also the major contributor to air pollution that is now a life-threatening menace in the urbanised world.
Coal mining is also a significant source of emission of methane, which has even more global-warming potential than carbon dioxide. Widespread use of lower quality coal to heat homes, especially in the colder months, has led to smog and respiratory illnesses in Poland’s southern cities, as in many emerging economies like India and China.
So, this black gold is now called dirty and anti-environmental in all its characters. But historically, coal has been serving humanity for ages for heating, cooking, steaming, lighting, manufacturing and electrifying. It was instrumental in triggering and spreading the industrial revolution that started with steam engines in the mid-18th century and has provided direct and indirect employment to billions.
To be fair, Poland is not the only country that uses coal to meet a major part of its energy needs. Globally, 40 per cent of the energy is produced by burning coal. China, India, the US are the three largest emitters of GHGs, most of which come from coal. In the US, the fracking revolution has in recent years reduced the use of coal for electricity to 30 per cent.
So, will delegates from all over the world to COP 24 get the symbolic message of President Duda in hosting the Climate Conference of world leaders on top of a coal mine?
(The author is Chairman TERRE Policy centre and former director UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org)