We are about to suffer the severe effects of climate change

20.11.2018 | By Szymon Malinowski and Marcin Popkiewicz

Landmark commitments of the Paris Agreement are dramatically far removed from the actual situation – greenhouse gas emissions are growing rapidly worldwide. The climate summit in Katowice starting in a couple of days is the last chance to begin the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. In the absence of radical reforms, in a few decades, we will experience temperatures which will upset global governance, but also which will make human life impossible in some parts of the world.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) scheduled for December in Katowice is another important step in negotiating globally resolutions necessary to combat climate change. In 2015, 195 countries reached an agreement in Paris to ‘hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to ensure that efforts are pursued to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C’. However, the landmark agreement is far from being a reality – greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a global level (and are already half as high as they were at the beginning of this century), leading to new records every year.

The capital of the Upper Silesia will host delegations from nearly 200 countries, including scientists, businessmen and representatives of non-governmental and ecological organisations. Thirty thousand attendees are estimated to take part in the climate summit.

The greatest challenge facing the delegates of the summit in Katowice is to establish a framework for the Paris Agreement implementation. One outstanding task for the policymakers is to create an ‘instruction manual’ which will set a clear path how the key commitments of the Agreement should be implemented.

The conference in Katowice is expected to clarify methods of financial assistance to developing countries for investments to reduce emissions, for climate change adaption and compensation of damages in countries suffering from climate change. Commitments concerning reductions of greenhouse emissions made individually by each state will also be reviewed.

Some discussions will be surely devoted to social dimensions of the transition to a non-carbon economy, particularly in regions which depend on the old energy model such as coal mining. Ideas for how to obtain public support for this change will also be brought to the table.

Poland is one of the EU Member States which doesn’t communicate its position on policy for reducing gas emissions individually, as it is determined jointly by the Member States at EU level. However, we may expect to hear about a Polish opportunity, so-called Carbon Forest Farms, promoted recently by the ruling party. If implemented on a large scale, Carbon Forest Farms have the potential of absorption of up to 2% CO2 emission from other sectors in Poland, although it’s at the moment reaching just 0,01%, given the current scale of implementation. Poland may also bring up an ambitious plan for the development of electromobility (which still remains at the planning phase rather than execution).

The report reveals how bad our climate is

A special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), commissioned at the Paris climate talks, was released in October to enable Parties to take the latest scientific knowledge into account in their negotiations. Measures required for the realisation of the objectives of the Paris Agreement were thoroughly analysed. According to the IPCC report, if we want to cut the risk of extreme climate change, we should commit to reducing CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and gas) by half within 12 years, and then to zero within another couple of years.

As Professor Jim Skea explains, the co-chair of IPCC Working Group III:

The laws of physics and chemistry don’t exclude the possibility of restricting warming to 1.5°C, but the unprecedented changes would be needed to achieve that.

Sadly, the report shows that even a half degree of difference beyond 1.5°C, a level still requiring significant contributions to reducing gas emissions, will lead to severe repercussions, including destabilisation of the world order.

Failing to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5-2°C (under the ‘best case scenario’, such events were not addressed in the report), which may come true if we hold the current emissions growth rate respecting the ‘business as usual’ principle, may lead to destruction of the world that we know and which is home to the human species. We should be mindful that the fall in temperature by 4-5°C on the global scale is synonymous with kilometres of the ice sheet covering Poland. By contrast, the increase in temperature by 4-5°C will make the world unfit for human habitation. After all, humans evolved in rather chilly temperatures.

The same temperatures could have been experienced on our planet millions of years ago. However, in the event of the ‘business as usual’ scenario, we will reach such temperatures within a few decades. Unfortunately, neither us nor the environment will be able to adapt to such significant and rapid changes.

A world where humans will not survive

Even if we respect the commitment to comply with the limits laid down in the Paris Agreement, heat waves will impact the human health considerably and breeding animals more and more. Global warming will transform major parts of Africa, Middle East and some of the subtropical and tropical regions into lands unsuitable for habitation.

Rising temperatures combined with droughts will lead to a decline in crop yields and famine. Rising sea levels will threaten port cities and river deltas. Oceans suffering from increased temperatures and elevated acidity will eradicate many eco-systems, including coral reefs. Also, the ocean will cease to be able to feed much of humanity.

Floods, severe storms, widespread tropical diseases and many other problems caused by climate change will become more and more frequent. Outcomes will include humanitarian catastrophes, destabilisation of societies, unprecedented migrations and omnipresent conflicts. In the view of such threats, believing that these matters do not concern us in Poland is an illusion.

There is less and less time to escape the most severe consequences of global warming. In spite of what some people say, it’s not entirely possible to compensate coal, oil and gas emissions with afforestation. Neither in Poland, nor anywhere else in the world.

We are facing a great challenge: it’s necessary to deliver energy efficiency improvements quickly and thoroughly – in buildings, transportation and other sectors of the economy. Additionally, the existing power plants and other facilities fired by fossil fuels need to be replaced with emission-free energy.

This enormous challenge is at the same time a violation of the status quo of different interests of many countries, corporations and economic organisations. This shift will also affect the way we live.

Changes are always tricky and encounter resistance. When faced with uncomfortable facts, we tend to negate or deny them. Efforts of the negation of reliable scientific knowledge are shared and supported by a variety of stakeholders. Opinions of scientific outsiders, ideologists and also unreliable studies commissioned upon request are frequently mentioned as a counterweight to the state of knowledge.

Denial is another problem. When negations do not have any effects, many are trying to deny the facts in their consciousness. They also refuse to bring up possible consequences.

Nonetheless, the laws of physics neglect the fact whether we deny the reality or not. Physical consequences of our operations against greenhouse gas emissions are widely known and unequivocal.

We may expect to see sweeping the problem under the carpet on the upcoming climate summit by representatives of many countries where there is a strong fossil fuels lobby (for example, Saudi Arabia, the US, Brazil, Australia, even Poland), and by some emerging economies which follow the others. And this may eventually lead to a catastrophe.

Coal won’t save us

Poland undertakes its commitments with regards to reducing gas emissions at the EU level. Our current nationwide commitment is to reduce gas emission from the big energy industry and industrial installations (under the EU emission trading system) by 43% by 2030, and by 7% in other sectors (public transport and agriculture). Our objectives are lower than the Paris Agreement stipulates which is why there is some debate at the UE forum as to whether make these commitments more restrictive (the European Parliament called to increase the target for reducing emissions from 40% to 55% by 2030). At the same time, we are struggling to meet the goal of 15% share in the clean energy by 2020 (it was barely 11% last year).

Common misconceptions among Polish politicians that Poland has vast coal reserves, climate protection policy is some kind of a temporary fad or that clean energy sources and efficiency investments are too expensive to be true, have to be mothballed.

Thinking about the climate talks as ‘bargaining’ the least ambitious measures and preserving short-term interests with regards to fossil fuels is no longer in the interest of citizens of any country. We should campaign for a strategy for climate protection coordinated at a global level. A project that we could build and stimulate.

We need ambitious objectives – for the world, Europe and Poland

We need to be aware that from the Polish perspective, open-minded and consistent building up a non-carbon economy may even help us to solve a lot of our problems: improve the trade balance, and energy security, alleviate air pollution, reduce energy poverty, improve land use planning, enhance innovative branches of the economy and contribute to building a country and a world which will be a better place to live.

This requires a lot of effort, knowledge and determination, but it is possible. Leaders of these movements are likely to become leaders of the global community. Those who prevent it will fail. We need to make sure that the latter will not take us to the bottom together with them. We have our own choice to make. To carry on along this path and lose everything, or to take action and win the future. What we are likely to see at the summit is only a handful of political leaders who have enough courage to put it that way. We should not be happy to see selfish interests win – the future that Poland, Europe and the rest of the world is facing will be short and dark.

Translation from Polish: Małgorzata Warchoł


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.