COP 19´s main lesson: More pressure needed to end the corporate control of politics

Daniel Mittler, Greenpeace International

All seasoned observers of climate talks did not expect much to come out of the Warsaw climate negotiations. But Typhoon Haiyan´s brutal devastation sent what seemed to many to be a signal to negotiators; with Filipino negotiator Yeb Sano articulating the need to ‘stop the climate madness’ more eloquently than anyone before at a climate meeting. Then, it seemed, for a brief moment, like maybe life could be different? May be the crying delegates from many countries would remember their children and act?

It was not to be. Indeed, even to a long-term observer like myself, it was simply devastating to see how quickly business as usual, jockeying for positions, dragging of feet and time wasting were the order of the day again after the extraordinary first day of COP 19. Neither the rich countries nor BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) were willing to move forward in offering concrete measures to reduce their emissions, or even agree on a concrete date for doing so. Even though there is much to gain from climate action in terms of new jobs and avoided costs, the talks were once again conducted as if climate action was all about pain.

There was much talk about ‘equity’ and ‘justice’ in the statements. But the rich world shirked the responsibility for their historical emissions. And other countries, like Brazil, only seemed to want to talk about history in order to avoid taking action on current and future emissions. Policies that protect the poor and vulnerable, though, will need action by all who can act.

Rich countries pledged only peanuts to the Adaptation Fund and to support countries in their efforts to tackle climate change and build up climate friendly economies, and failed to provide the much needed long-term certainty of support. Japan and Australia added insult to injury by tearing up their previous climate commitments right in the middle of a COP. Brazil, meanwhile, had the audacity to praise its new forest law (the ‘Forest Code’) at a COP 19 event, just as a 28 per cent jump in deforestation rates in the Amazon over the last year was confirmed. And while China is making big strides domestically in tackling pollution from its coal industry and advancing renewable energy, it is completely failing to translate this into a willingness to lead on the global negotiations stage. 

Governments, in short, seemed to only want to illustrate that they are serving the fossil fuel industries, not their people. No wonder all of civil society was disgusted at the lack of progress and urgency. A large section of civil society said ‘enough is enough’ and staged the first ever walk out from a COP. While we walked, we did not move away from the global effort to protect the climate or the UNFCCC. We were walking away from a poisoned COP where the bags sponsored by an oil company were the symbol of all that is rotten in the state of climate politics. The message of the walk out was simple: governments at the UNFCCC need to protect the climate and the people, not the coal and the oil industry.

Indeed, all major NGOs after COP 19 seemed to have only one message: ‘Nothing will change, unless we mobilise for more change’ (see Oxfam or WWF´s release for two examples). That unity is heartening. Because it is indeed the case, that a global treaty in Paris in 2015 will not be possible without a paradigm shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear power and towards renewable energy everywhere – and especially in the EU, the US, China, India and South Africa.

COP 19 did provide some positive lessons too. In Poland, at least, we managed to mobilise for the change we need due to the meeting taking place there. Never before has the Polish government been so publicly exposed for not being in line with their own people. 89 per cent percent of Polish citizens want more energy coming from renewable sources – but nobody used to know that. Following the many protests, not least against the insensitive

‘Coal Summit’ staged by the Polish government, everyone in Poland knows now – even the government. Poland, due to COP 19, has a much more open and real energy debate. Will it be enough to turn the tide and stop the Polish government from preventing higher climate ambition in the EU only to serve their own coal interests? Only if civil society can continue to apply pressure. Only if international civil society keeps watching.

Greenpeace, looking forward, will be pushing all national governments throughout 2014 so that they come to the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit in September 2014 with meaningful emissions reduction offers and are prepared to fill the Green Climate Fund. In particular, Greenpeace is expecting concrete and ambitious proposals in 2014 for reducing climate pollution from China, the US and the European Union.

The message from COP 19 is that more and more people are getting less and less patient with corporate polluters, only 90 of which are responsible for approximately 63 per cent of cumulative global emissions of industrial CO2 and methane (calculated as CO2 equivalent) between 1854 and 2010. A growing number of people are also prepared to take direct action against the coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries and demand a different kind of energy system. The solidarity shown for theArctic 30at COP 19 – from civil society and many government delegates – was truly moving. That these activists and journalists – facing long prison sentences for trying to prevent Gazprom from drilling for Arctic oil that must stay in the ground if we are to avoid the worst of climate change – are heroes to so many who attended COP 19 shows that more and more people agree that climate change is now so serious that civil disobedience is the only appropriate response. As Tomasz, the Polish Arctic 30 activist, reminded us in a quote used by the Climate Action Network in their opening statement to COP 19: ‘Nowadays, environmental protection demands more courageous actions … In order to protect what is valuable for us, we have to undertake further actions.’ That is the lesson from COP 19. We must all work together to break the stranglehold of the fossil fuel lobbies on our governments in time for a meaningful deal to be agreed in Paris in 2015.

About the author

Daniel Mittler is the Political Director of Greenpeace International