International climate talks are off to an inauspicious start in Poland.
They began on Sunday in Katowice, a small city in the heart of Polish coal country, and are already a strong contender for the most tone-deaf meeting in 24 iterations of the UN climate change conference known as the conference of the parties (COP). After picking coal companies to sponsor the talks, the Polish government decided to deck the halls of its exhibition center with piles of coal in a move that is beyond parody.
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Confounded conference goers have been tweeting images and videos of the coal display as well as coal-related tchotchkes, including coal soap (it’s clean coal, get it?). A coal miner band greeted attendees after they walked in from air thick with coal-fire power plant haze. And in his opening remarks, Polish President Andrzej Duda said that coal “does not contradict the protection of the climate and the progress of climate protection.”
Look, I get it. Poland mines a lot of coal. It gets 78 percent of its power from coal. It has a vested interest in keeping coal alive from an economic and political standpoint, and this conference gives the government a chance to lay that vision out.
But in a world governed by uncompromising physics, burning coal is just not viable any longer. It is among the most carbon-polluting forms of energy. The bombshell Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released earlier this year shows that to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius without overshooting, coal use will have to fall 97 percent by 2050.
If the world is serious about climate change, coal needs to be treated as a dead man walking. That means focusing on just transitions for miners and coal plant operators, in addition to rapidly phasing out the use of coal.
This year’s coal theme is a stark contrast with last year’s COP hosted by Fiji. One of the small island states fighting the hardest to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as a matter of survival, Fiji pushed for something known as the Talanoa Dialogue, a process designed to help the nations of the world ramp up their climate ambitions. Fiji’s president, along with the three preceding COP presidents, all published a letter saying they “are extremely concerned about the climate crisis and join our voices to the chorus of those seeking enhanced action.”
Poland’s commitment to holding up coal is hardly a sign this year’s COP president shares that vision.