Is humanity at stake due to climate change? The much-publicised underwater cabinet meeting of Maldives in 2009, just about two months before the 15th UN Conference on Climate Change, called COP 15, was deemed to have already responded to that question, albeit symbolically.
Maldivian ministers led by then President Mohamed Nasheed went literally down in the shallow waters off the island of Girifushi, one of the nearly 1000 islands that makes Maldives most vulnerable to climate change. They then got down to the business of governing the Maldives under water by communicating with each other through hand gestures.
Some critics dismissed that under-water meeting as a publicity stunt. Many in the diplomatic world, however, judged it as a remarkable and bold gesture. It was considered as a clarion call to global consciousness on issues that must be hammered out at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.
The most intense climate campaigner among the then Heads of State, Dr Nasheed wanted to create awareness not just about the plight of the small-island countries in the wake of the sea- level rise but the plight of the humanity leading to even 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, the United Nations Climate Conference, COP 24, three years after Paris Climate Agreement, 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 being held from December 2-14 in the region south of Poland, called 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 city of Katowice, venue of the climate conference, not far from Krakow where President Duda comes from, is amidst busy mining area with strong political clout, The region is the home for European Union’s largest coal producers. Needless to emphasise that 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 green movement extremely anxious, many of the events in the margins of COP24 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 the coal is the only option for the Polish government. To hammer home the point, the government has recently announced that it is planning to invest in the construction of a new coal mine in the same region called Silesia where COP 24 is taking place.
By selecting it as venue for COP24, Poland is making audacious efforts to raise global consciousness and awareness on the stark ground reality of the global war in tackling one of the most challenges of our times. A positive message from Katowice and Upper Silesian basin is taht the world needs to eliminate coal through techno-political-social solutions and not just through ‘clean coal’ like soft technological options. Phasing out the ‘Coal is the Goal’ should be the positive message from Katowice.
What is the stark and dark reality? Nearly 80 percent of the electricity in Poland is derived from coal. Globally, coal is the single largest contributor to the Green House Gases ( GHGs) emissions when burnt to produce carbon dioxide. The coal on weight by weight basis 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 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 as dirty and anti-environment in all its characters. But historically coal has been serving humanity for ages for heating, cooking, steaming, lighting, manufacturing and electrifying. It has been instrumental in triggering and spreading 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 major part of coal to meet its energy needs. Globally 40 percent of the energy is produced by burning coal. China, India, USA 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 percent.
So will delegates from all over the world to COP24 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. He can be contacted at email@example.com)