Poznan Climate Conference: Half Way To Nowhere

THE post-Kyoto Protocol phase, or “second commitment period” of the global treaty on climate change which is to take effect from 2012 onwards, is scheduled to be finalised at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) at Copenhagen in December 2009. The “first commitment period” till 2012 required developed countries to reduce their emissions by around 5 per cent which, with a few honourable exceptions, they have failed to do. Carbon dioxide emissions, which were increasing by about 1 per cent annually in the 1990s have been increasing by 3 per cent annually in the past decade, and scientific opinion is coming around to accept that the rise in average global temperatures over the next couple of decades will be higher than the 2 degrees Celsius earlier predicted, with dire consequences.

The rapid worsening of the situation, as brought out by the 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in mid-2008, had made it abundantly clear that far more stringent and urgent measures are now required. The Bali Conference had therefore agreed that a new agreement should be reached by end-2009 comprising two broad elements, namely, an enlarged Kyoto-style deal under which industrialised nations would commit to deep emissions reductions in the medium term by say 2020, and a longer-term agreement involving all countries.

COP 14 held in the Polish city of Poznan on December 1-13, 2008 was to mark the half-way point in the two-year process that was decided upon at the Bali Conference last year to reach a new global arrangement.

On the face of it, not much should have been expected from the Poznan meeting which, according to its formal agenda, was supposed only to have taken stock of the different proposals floating around and the modalities and scheduling of how these would be discussed prior to Copenhagen. COP 14 at Poznan dutifully agreed on what is at hand, and how and when to discuss it, and in that sense achieved its formal and very modest task. However, given the gravity of the climate crisis and the pressing need for serious action by the advanced capitalist countries chiefly responsible, it is deeply disturbing that the Poznan Conference did nothing further in pursuit of this goal. In fact, the tone of the deliberations, and the suggestions made by several of the key players, were even more distressing and indicate that the road to Copenhagen will be very rough. The future of the planet looks bleak indeed.

Impact of Economic Crisis

A part of the problem, but only a part, is that the global economic meltdown has grabbed all the attention of decision-makers especially in the advanced countries which, again, precipitated the crisis. How seriously this impacted on the Poznan Conference can be gauged by the fact that member countries of the European Union, hitherto the leading voices favouring major emissions reductions by industrialised countries, were simultaneously holding their own conference in Brussels on the economic crisis and also discussing their energy and environmental policies in that context.

The EU had already been coming under pressure from its new East European members such as Poland who were protesting against the EU’s push for deep emissions cuts on grounds that they could ill afford the supposedly high costs. The slowing down of the European economy, with even leading light Germany slipping into recession, had added to these pressures. Ideological divides in Europe on how to deal with the economic crisis, with Germany attacking the tax-and-spend approach advocated by the UK also spilled over to the climate problem. With one in seven German jobs linked to the automobile industry now facing sharp drop in demand, even “green” Germany turned protectionist. Agreeing to demands from by far the biggest auto industry in Europe to ease up on tight emission control norms, Chancellor Merkel said she would oppose any measure that would cost German jobs!

This trend is doubly dangerous. Reduced economic activity may temporarily lead to lower emissions and a consequent relaxing of checks but, on the other side of the recession, would have a disastrous upward bounce of emissions and greater resistance to emissions controls. This has been clearly evidenced in Russia which saw a sharp economic downturn and drop in emissions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, with increasing emissions due to the renewed spurt in economic growth, there is great reluctance to impose restrictions, with Russia declaring at Poznan that the IPCC’s target of 25-40 per cent emissions reductions by 2020 as “unfounded”.

UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon’s calls for a “green New Deal” which echoes US president-elect Barrack Obama’s thinking that a shift to alternative energy and energy-saving technologies will provide a badly needed spur to the economy, boost infrastructure and upgrade technology found no takers at Poznan.


EU discussions at Brussels continued till December 12, the very eve of the closing plenary at Poznan, and it became clear that the EU was watering down its previous commitments to urgently tackle climate change through deep cuts in emissions. The final declaration from Brussels proclaimed a target of a mere 20 per cent reduction in EU emissions by 2020! The Brussels meeting agreed to a so-called “20-20-20” plan under which greenhouse gases would be cut back by 20 per cent and 20 per cent of energy generated in the EU would be from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020. But there were huge concessions to eastern European countries and to heavy industry. The EU also raised the amount of emissions member countries could offset by sponsoring “green” projects in developing countries. Leading environmental scientists have estimated that actual emissions reductions would come down from 20 to a mere 4 per cent!

A far cry from the 50 per cent pushed for by the EU at recent G8 Summit and even at Bali, and much lower that even the 40 per cent recommended for advanced countries by the IPCC. The UK remains committed to its self-declared legislated and justiciable target of reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050. EU leadership on climate change has now been severely dented.

The internal bickering among EU states at Brussels severely affected the mood at Poznan and diluted the requisite push for stringent emissions controls. The president of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, pleaded with the Europeans: “If Europe sends a signal that it can make deep cuts only in prosperous times, what signal does this send to India and China?” Clearly, as another observer pointed out, if climate protection is equated with loss of affluence, the chances of achieving an effective global climate protection agreement will decline.

Adaptation Fund

For the inveterate optimists, one could find a few silver linings among the massive and dark clouds of the Poznan discussions.

The Adaptation Fund has been one of the many unfulfilled promises of developed countries under the climate treaty arrangements. Money for the Fund was supposed to come from a 2 per cent levy on carbon trading under the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). But shamefully little money has been collected, and none disbursed, from out of the billions of dollars that have changed hands under CDM mostly among large corporates, and that too in a few countries dominated by not-so-poor China and India with no perceptible impact on reducing emissions. Although developing countries have pushed hard for better management of the Fund, the Bali Conference made the outrageous recommendation that this management should vest with the World Bank and IMF!

At Poznan, it was agreed that developing countries would have greater say and improved access to the Adaptation Fund. In theory, with this agreement, money should start flowing to poorer nations by next year but how this translates into practice remains to be seen. Again, in theory, about $80 million is due into the Fund from various transactions but the coffers are now empty till all the procedures are worked out. The British government found some half a million pounds with which to “launch” the Adaptation Fund to help developing countries cope with the impact of climate change, but the tokenism of the gesture is obvious when one compares it with the $86 billion per year that the IPCC estimates poorer countries will need!

Developing countries pushed at Poznan to expand the Fund by expanding the levy to cover various other kinds of carbon trading. If agreed, this proposal would have multiplied the Fund many fold, since volumes of carbon trading are hundreds of times greater than the relatively small dollar value of CDM projects. But the developed countries stiffly resisted these moves at Poznan. According to the UN’s chief climate official, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Yvo de Boer, western nations are using this as a negotiating card to use in the run-up to Copenhagen and had decided, in his words, that “politically this is not the time to do it.”

Whatever the outcome, the entire arrangement rests upon carbon trading, the scandalous system under which the global commons have been appropriated and commodified by the advanced capitalist countries. Unfortunately, carbon trading and offsets have come to stay, and be recognised as a key element of strategies to combat climate change, the principle itself having been reiterated at Bali. It is indeed ironic that so much trust continues to be placed in a brand new financial market when the entire capitalist financial system has broken down!


Another supposed “breakthrough” at Poznan was an agreement, following up on discussions at Bali, to include forest conservation in the new climate change agreement. It is estimated that as much as 20 per cent of total global emissions are due to deforestation, notably in the Amazon region and tropical forests in Africa and South East Asia. Yet the so-called REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and forest degradation in Developing countries) has been highly controversial, with some radical activists arguing it commodifies forests and paves the way for commercialisation of forest lands, while several leading developing countries such as Brazil pushing for it.

The present agreement for offsets does not recognise or make any provisions for preserving standing forests. Thus, money can be earned or emissions offset by planting trees which, in theory, would absorb an equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide, but no resources are made available to preserve existing forests. Developing countries with large forest tracts have long argued, rightly, that regions such as Brazil’s Amazonian forests, which are a very important part of the global sink to absorb carbon dioxide, perform an important environmental service for the whole world but, while these countries are expected and exhorted to preserve these forests, they receive no compensation to enable them to do so.

The counter argument is that any offsets or monetary transactions will only encourage conversion of primary forests to large-scale plantations in the name of afforestation even though a group of trees does not make a forest which performs diverse ecological functions such as preserving bio-diversity. Further, discussions on REDD have avoided major issues such as industrial agriculture, illegal logging, forest clearing for bio-fuel or other commercial plantation etc which are the real drivers of deforestation in the globalised capitalist economy.

Additionally, the issue of rights and livelihoods of forest-dwelling communities especially indigenous peoples has also been avoided, under pressure from both corporate interests that want forests to be seen as resources for them to exploit, and governments wishing to assert their control over them.

Typically, a compromise text was agreed upon at Poznan that left everybody dissatisfied! The rights of indigenous peoples was specifically denied, especially due to last-minute US insistence and maneuvering to delete the word “rights” and the last “s” in “peoples” thus ensuring that no collective body could raise claims in future! The text instead recognised the “full and effective participation” of local communities, avoided the issue of biodiversity and did not discuss any disincentives against uprooting natural forests, replacing them with commercial plantations and displacing forest dwellers.

Straws in the wind

There were some interesting portents at Poznan.

A position paper on behalf of the G77 group of developing countries (including India and China) focusing on transfer of clean technologies to developing countries was circulated making many familiar arguments. Discussions of nuances of the Paper should perhaps await another article.

What was more interesting was the declaration by Mexico that it would reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, the first such declaration by any developing country. And a group of developing countries and Small Island States who are in danger of disappearing under rising sea waters circulated a paper calling upon ALL countries, not just developed countries, to reduce emissions. China and India should take note!

And lastly, the one person many hope, or even expect, to make a huge positive contribution to efforts to combat the climate crisis, and who was the subject of much discussion on the sidelines, was not even present at Poznan: US president-elect barrack Obama. None of the leading lights of Obama’s transition team were at Poznan either. Of course, many people have been mesmerised by Obama’s high-sounding rhetoric during his presidential campaign, and even expect miracles of biblical proportions! Only time will tell what the next US administration will actually do.