FAITH groups and campaigners have given a qualified welcome to the UN climate summit in Poland last week, but many acknowledged that the most hopeful signs of progress were to be found outside the formal negotiating halls.
The meeting took place in Katowice (News, 14 December), in the heart of Poland’s coal industry. It is dubbed the country’s “air-pollution capital”, owing to the belching coal plants which delegates had to pass on their way to the UFO-shaped convention centre. The air-quality app Air Visual showed pollution levels to be “very unhealthy”, and worse than Beijing, on the opening day of the summit.
The main outcome from talks was the adoption of a rulebook for assessing the national plans that make up the Paris agreement, signed in 2015 (News, 18 December 2015). Although primarily a technocratic and administrative achievement, the rulebook will help to implement the accord.
The vice-president for climate and economics of the World Resources Institute, Helen Mountford, said: “While some guidelines could have been clearer, and other details remain unresolved, countries now have a foundation to implement their climate plans and common guidelines to report their progress in a more robust manner.”
As this was the first global meeting since the publication of an alarming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that the world had 12 years to avoid dangerous climate change, more ambitious plans on emissions reductions had been hoped for. It means that action will be needed at a special meeting arranged by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, next autumn, in New York.
The advocacy director at CAFOD, Neil Thorns, said: “Once again, leaders have ignored the science and the urgent cries of the poorest communities who are on the front line. Governments must go home, raise the ambition in their national plans, and bring them to the UN secretary-general summit in September.”
The lack of urgency from governments was highlighted by church leaders, who have taken an increasingly visible presence at the talks in recent years. The Vatican, which, for a long time, made little use of its formal observer status, has been more forthright since the papal encyclical Laudato Sí, which called for a radical change in humanity’s relationship with creation.
In Katowice, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, referred to the IPCC report at a press conference: “The information in this report is even more worrying, given that the current commitments made by states to mitigate and adapt to climate change are not sufficient to achieve the objectives set by the Paris agreement.
“The question is therefore this: is there sufficient political will to implement the many solutions we have available?”
This was echoed by the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, who said: “This is a political and moral task that goes far beyond any national border. We know what is needed to do, and how to do it. Now is the time to do it. Now.”
PAThe President of the UN Climate Change Conference COP24, Michal Kurtyka (centre front), with participants at the World Climate Summit, on Saturday
With ambition at the talks limited, compounded by the Polish hosts who oversaw the negotiations, the most encouraging stories were to be found on the fringes of the summit. The campaign group 350.org, founded by the environmental activist Bill McKibben, who is a Methodist, announced that the 1000th institution had disinvested funds from fossil-fuel companies.
An organiser at 350.org, Nico Haeringer, said that, through disinvestment, institutions such as the Church of England had the potential to strip the social licence and political power from fossil-fuel companies. “This is a moral movement as well as a financial one. Just five years ago, we had 181 divestment commitments, and $50 billion shifted away from polluting industries; and, today, we’re over 1000, and approaching $8 trillion.
“Despite the enormous progress and the spike of divestment commitments, we need hundreds more to move their money out of dangerous fossil fuels. Massive pension funds, like New York State, to moral authorities like the Vatican and the Church of England, to iconic institutions like the Nobel Foundation, and premier universities like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge — the tide is turning, and the time to divest is now.”
Other moves included the announcement by the world’s biggest shipping company, Maersk, that it would be reducing its emissions to zero by 2050, and Volkswagen said that it would not make any more petrol- or diesel-only cars after 2025.
Signs of what might happen should governments continue to drag their feet in responding to climate change were also on display in Katowice. One of the stars of the summit was Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old from Sweden, who has gone on strike from school every Friday, sitting outside the Swedish Parliament during school hours with the sign “School strike for the climate”.
On the last Friday of the summit, she was joined by ten schoolchildren from Katowice, together with students from around the world, striking for the climate. Speaking to delegates in the main plenary hall, she said: “You’ve run out of excuses, and we’re running out of time. We’ve come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”
Also present were members of the protest group Extinction Rebellion, who, exasperated by the lack of government progress, have taken to non-violent direct action to bring change. One of the activists, Liam Geary Baulch, said: “In the two months since our first action, we have expanded more than we imagined. We are now planning to change our structure so it can accommodate up to two million people.”
Christian Climate Action, an affinity group which works alongside the Rebellion, had, he said, been instrumental in its success: “The Christians have been amazing. They have really been leading the way.”
Joe Ware is a journalist for Christian Aid