Saturday, December 6, 2008

Post from Poznan

The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Poznan, Poland, for the United Nations Climate Summit was the acrid smell of coal in the air. Coal, among the dirtiest of fossil fuels, accounts for 95 percent of Poland's electricity and the hazy skies here evoke sooty images from a Dickens novel. This heavily industrialized part of central Europe is so polluted it is called the Black Triangle.

One of Europe's largest coal mines is just a few miles down the road, and there is a smokestack right across the street from the sprawling Soviet-era conference center. That's a fitting reminder for the 11,000 people who are gathered to discuss pathways to a low carbon global economy.

If the dreary setting, and the massive magnitude of the climate challenge, were not enough, the UN conference opened as the global economic crisis continues to deepen. "The bottom line is we are not going to be in the position we were two years ago" to provide technology and financial resources to tackle climate change, U.S. Senator John Kerry said in the United States before the conference opened here December 1st. Kerry is head of the US Congressional delegation arriving here next week and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, which will consider the treaty expected to emerge at the next annual summit in Copenhagen next December.

Despite the dark horizons and modest expectations of this year's gathering, there are bright spots. A briefing by the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, noted that much of China's $586 billion economic stimulus package is geared toward improving energy infrastructure and efficiency. China realizes that juicing the economy can be done while making smart investments in a new generation of energy infrastructure and efficiency. Other countries are seeing the same double play and the amount of capital being pumped into alternative energies and sustainable economic development is now many times greater than it ever has been.

Still, much more needs to be done. There is a broad international consensus on that. How much more? Some energy advocates and NASA's climate pioneer James Hansen say the end goal should be an atmosphereic carbon concentration of 350 parts per million. Others say 450 ppm is the number that will avoid catastrophic disruptions in our climate and way of life.

Many companies and politicians don't want to commit to a specific target. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a London-based association of corporate titans such as Dupont, IBM, and mining giant Rio Tinto, dodges the sensitive question of a hard figure. But it does say significant cuts are necessary. "The current economic crisis reinforces business interests in a clear, comprehensive framework" for cutting carbon emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, council member George Weyerhaeuser, Jr., told the conference.

What will the new global climate deal be? That won't be known until next December, but if it has any hope of solving the climate crisis it must dramatically cut emissions from coal plants such as the ones that power (and choke) this town. Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, says he supports fighting climate change, like just about every politician these days. And like nearly every politician, he thinks his constituents should get a special break, arguing Poland should be exempt from European Union plans to curb carbon emissions. Multiply that attitude by 160 participating countries and one begins to gauge the enormity of what must happen. Fast.

Greg Dalton, Commonwealth Club vice president and head of its ClimateOne program, is attending climate talks in Poznan, Poland.


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