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New frontiers in politics of Climate Change
November 29, 2018, 3:49 pm

At the outset let me take a step back. Let us look at what happened three years before. I was not personally present in December 2015 in Paris. I understand however that at that time its heartbeat was not to be found on Champs Elysees. It was only weeks after a terrible drama of Bataclan terrorist attack in which a very good friend of mine, Claude Triumph, almost died.

Back then it was the le Bourget military airport which attracted the eyes of the world. Under the wintery sky the worlds’ nations gathered there. And there they finished a five year long marathon, adopting the global climate agreement. A new legal instrument under the Convention pushed the world onto a new track. From there on all Parties, not just some Parties, are to have mitigation contributions. A historical achievement for France, its diplomacy, and Laurent Fabius, COP21 President in particular.

It was a triumph of multilateralism nested in the strong sense of optimism and empowerment.

Yes, we can do it.

We can, together, counter the climate change problem.

The moment must have been truly electrifying. We had "in the bag" the Paris Agreement.

Did we?

Do we?

We are now in 2018.

Only three years later and our global political circumstances are so different. Today we see that the wave of optimism and global cooperation which carried us to and through Paris - crested, broke and is now tumbling. The societies of the world don’t seem to be as global minded as they appeared to be back then. The world planted a precious seed in Paris, but we have yet to see this seed to grow into a strong tree.

At this year UN General Assembly in September in New York the world leaders recognized these trends all too well. Climate change and the discussion on the crisis of multilateralism were dominating many of the speeches. Some attacked the tenets of both, many rushed in their defense. It almost seemed that national concerns and the multilateral approach are mutually exclusive.

I would like to offer, in this context, a word of wisdom from my great compatriot. Professor Leszek Kolakowski who, after escaping form Soviet dominated Poland in the sixties, taught philosophy not far from here, at the Oxford University.

In a memorable essay he demonstrated that problems are not linked with values but with hierarchy of values. It is not by saying that this or that is important but by putting an order to what is important that we run into trouble.

Let me paraphrase this thought in order to make it useful for our matter at hand. The multilateral, global approach is necessary in tackling a complex problem with an inherently global DNA. But a wider perspective is a must if a governmental actor wants to have societal backing. If they want to be effective in implementation action. Therefore both perspectives are valid and both are risky if one overshadows the other.

Undoubtedly climate change is a global issue. We can’t act on it in isolation. We will fail. It is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Multilateral approach is the only effective way to address the global warming.  There is no question about that.

On the other hand climate action is a national issue. We must focus on the internal domestic dynamics in order to move forward. The current political dynamic in the world is directly related to this notion - too many people have been left behind.

Globalization has brought prosperity for the world, no doubt about it. During the last 40 years GDP per capita quadrupled and the proportion of extreme poverty has fallen from 42% to less than 10%.

But the globalization has also increased inequalities. Yes, many were lifted out from poverty, yet rich became immensely richer. And the most worrying is that in the developed world the middle class is stacked or even regresses. French economist Thomas Piketty in his major book Le Capital predicts that this tension is unsustainable.

If it is meant to be successful, climate policy must be incorporated into wider national policies. The new normal in the climate policy is to treat it not as an exception in national politics, imported from outside or imagined at the top level, but as part of a wider picture.

We live in times when 800 million people suffer from hunger. This grim statistic is rising again, after many years of decline. – We live in times when energy poverty touches more than 1 billion people, when water access is increasingly critical in many parts of the world. We want to make climate measures successful. Well, if so, we must  revisit the founding principles of our growth model and civilization.

I see the issue of just transition as an important aspect of this shift, because if we don’t have our people with us on board, we fail. If people are out of jobs, they won’t care about the global mitigation effort. If people are in an economic downward spiral they won’t welcome any intensified efforts to expensively modernize.

The upbeat mood which we experienced in Paris in 2015 is fast evaporating.

The political celebratory moment for global climate is past its prime. Now, that does not make the implementation of what we agreed at Le Bourget any less important. Alas, now is the crucial time - maybe the last moment - to implement this global pact.

To illustrate my point I will use a metaphor of an electric car. We have the "car" - the flashy shiny colorful frame. But this  “car” won’t go forward without a battery. And we, under the UNFCCC are working now on designing this battery which will make the car go.

What batteries are for an electric car, that’s what Katowice is for Paris.

Without progress in the battery cost and design, electric cars would never be able to take off, despite best efforts from policy makers and enthusiasts. It would stay another California Dream.

This brings me to the expected outcomes of COP24 in Katowice.

Katowice is about - and I make no exaggeration when I say this - about safeguarding Paris. Without success in Katowice there is no success of Paris. Because, simply put, the framework will not be operational.

For my part I cast the Polish vision for the Katowice outcome in a twofold manner: the political outcome and the technical outcome. Allow me to briefly elaborate on both components.

The political outcome will focus on three themes - the environment, the human and the technology.

The environment

Climate change is intertwined with all our environmental efforts and challenges. There will be no successful climate action if desertification progresses, biodiversity is further reduced and deforestation is moving ahead. This last issue – of forestry – has been then proposed to be one of the leitmotivs of this upcoming COP.

The human

We need to put the human at the center of the climate policy.

We want to look at the needs of our citizens as we evolve - their need for clean environment and their need for security in all its aspects.

Just transition is about remembering those who are marginalized by the onset of the changes. A meaningful inclusion of the topic of just transformation into the international climate change policy discussions will reward us with higher levels of societal trust towards local, national and global climate change policies. It is worth pursuing, because the higher level of trust will empower us to move forward more vigorously.

The technology

We are talking a lot about risks and dangers of climate change.

The transportation sector is the top area where reductions can be of greater magnitude and technologies are maturing. Moreover, this is the only sector among the OECD countries where emissions are quickly progressing. Equally, as they grow very fast, cities in India, China, Indonesia, in African countries will be a particular challenge to satisfy the ever growing appetite for cars. And for example, the city of Lagos grows at the pace of 77 persons every hour!

Increased mobility together with galloping urbanization require that we focus on technological and organizational change towards the zero-emmission transportation systems. I decided to make electromobility a major theme of the COP 24. Not only electric vehicles start to be competitive – fact that Tesla overtook Merceds-Benz in US is very telling – but they offer new employment opportunities. The also provide major environmental and climate benefits. For example in Poland, an electric car emits 25% less CO2 than its classical counterpart, and this in the conditions of a very particular Polish energy mix.

The technical outcome is about implementing the Paris Agreement Work Program

The main issues we are tackling are related to transparency and accounting in mitigation as well as in provision of support. I do not want to bore you with too many technical details. Let me just say that the main challenge lays still in forging the new paradigm for commitments and burden sharing to replace the Annexl/non Annex l categorization under the UNFCCC. We agreed in Paris we will do it - taking into account different and evolving national circumstances - but we did not agree on HOW to do it.

How do we make the mitigation accounting standardized and transparent on a global scale? How do we move to a new system, the same for all but taking into account we are all so different? How do we track climate finance after it is disbursed? How do we report on it so that it is predictable? Who reports? How to keep pressure on mitigation while not sidelining adaptation? How to elevate adaptation without blurring focus on mitigation? What timelines, what indicators, what marginal conditions?

We do have the Paris Agreement. These questions, however, in their specifics have not yet been answered.

And so we stand before these "simple" questions of "how, when and what?" in the global political circumstances of the year 2018. The year in which global politics is different, environmental pressures and higher, societal anxiety is skyrocketing.

As the incoming President I take my task very seriously. We just have to succeed, there is no other way. The credibility of the governments involved is the least consequential factor here - even if it is grave in its own right.

The task is not easy, but I do have hope. The negotiators and their ministers understand the responsibility laying on their shoulders too - and I could observe that for the last several meetings I attended.  They are the pioneers / explorers of the new frontiers of the global climate politics.

And by now they do understand a balance needs to be stricken between the national concerns of the societies and the global drive to solve the climate change problem. Indeed this approach is already embedded in the text of the Paris Agreement. The world leaders on both sides of the isle should recognize that too. 


MichaƂ Kurtyka – Secretary of State in the Ministry of Environment, Government Plenipotentiary for COP24 Presidency

A trained physicist and engineer, economist, specialist in international negotiations, expert in the field of energy and the author of the government programme for the development of electromobility in Poland. As the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Energy, he was directly responsible for the technological development and introduction of innovations to the energy sector, implementation of climate and energy policy in the fuel and gas sector, conducting international relations with states and international organizations. He negotiated the provisions of the Winter Package, as well as legal acts regulating the electricity market in Europe. He represents Poland in the International Energy Agency.

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