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18 December 2008

A planet-saving climate fest

By Isabel Hilton


It looked like a glum Christmas season in Poznan, Poland’s second city. Some 8,000 members of the global climate tribe were in town, but, in a restaurant near the old town square, two waitresses divided their bored gaze between just three customers and a large flat-screen television, on which a succession of American pop singers gyrated in a high wind. Outside, the damp street was all but deserted.

“Has the economic crisis hit Poland?” I asked Arek, a professor at Poznan’s most important university. He shrugged. “Yes, but that’s not why the town is dead,” he said. Poznan, he explained, normally has 100,000 students, who pack the usually raucous bars and cafes. “But the universities sent them home for two weeks,” he said. “They wanted to let out the students’ rooms for the conference.”

Few of them were likely to return for the final week before the Christmas break. Arek was indignant. “They just announced it – no dis cussion. They wanted to make money.” And, no, he also said, there had not been many takers for the rooms.

The 14th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol – COP 14 – held in Poznan between 1 and 12 December, was certainly a large event, but hardly big enough to occupy the space vacated by the students. As they were absent, there were no climate-related debates at the university, no boisterous demonstrations demanding a rethink of Poland’s dependence on coal. The people of Poznan went quietly about their diminished business, paying no more attention to the countdown to Armageddon than they would to any passing trade fair.

COP 14, like its predecessors, was the trade fair of the climate business. Off a nondescript highway heading into the suburbs, Poznan’s vast conference centre comfortably swallowed scores of side events, press conferences, closed and open meetings, delegation offices and coffee-bar conspiracies. Camera crews conducted interviews at the crossroads of two huge indoor avenues lined with stalls promoting everything from the UN itself to a Korean plan to save the planet with algae. Men and women burdened with bundles of handouts hurried to distant meeting rooms named after Poland’s wildlife, from the mysterious Alpine Accentor and Aesculapian Snake to the Woodpecker.

There were witty events daily, some aimed at the cameras, others at the resolve of the negotiators, as activists competed to provide arresting visuals for catastrophic climate change: a row of life-sized ice maidens slowly morphed into headless ice spikes; a high-spirited youth group batted a lump of coal with hockey sticks, a flimsy excuse for their slogan “Don’t Puck It Up”; down-and-out polar bears held placards begging for change, or “confessing” to lives ruined by oil addiction.

Saudi Arabia, declining rehab, sent its oil minister to lay a compensation claim for any loss of business that saving the planet might cause. Canada, which has missed its mitigation targets by several miles, issued a stirring call to action. The outgoing US negotiators sat on the shrinking ice floe of the Bush presidency, unsmiling but unrepentant, and, in a parallel reality, talked of their years of climate leadership. The man from the Maldives pointed out that back home the rising tide was lapping at people’s ankles. Country after country intoned the mantra of the moment – that the economic crisis should not be an excuse for delay – as they kicked the real decisions into next year. The habitual scapegoats, Brazil and China, pointed to ambitious national plans and challenged the rich polluters to match their words with some action of their own.

But they had gathered for a ritual haunted by absences: that of the EU and of the announced messiah, Barack Obama, to whom the former vice-president Al Gore, at a packed revivalist address, played John the Baptist. The EU’s attention was on the final negotiations in Brussels, 500 miles away, for its own climate and energy package: the means by which the EU’s promise of 20 per cent cuts in CO2 emissions by 2020 will be delivered. The Polish government, playing the concerned host in Poznan, led the wrecking crew in Brussels, insisting on – and getting – indulgences for its own coal. When the package finally staggered into daylight, the EU’s claim to climate leadership sagged like an old helium balloon. At 3am on the Saturday, news of the meagre outcome of the Poznan negotiations echoed to an almost empty conference centre.

The city of Poznan calculated the emissions generated by the attendance of the ministers, secretaries, assistants, interpreters, security men, activists, experts, journalists, ex-politicians, busi nessmen, policy wonks, interns, congressional aides and EU staffers at 13,000 tonnes, and announced that this would be offset, a gesture as effective at inducing virtue as the sale of papal indulgences.

David Wheeler, a US analyst, waspishly cal culated the opportunity cost of the Poznan conference at roughly $50m – enough, he argued, to induce private-sector investment in a 40MW solar thermal power plant rather than a coal-fired equivalent, saving 2.7 million tonnes of emissions over 30 years. Next time, he said, think about staying at home.

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