Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan

About the author
Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy research NGO based in London.

A black Labrador is tussling with an Alsatian on the grass next to Poznan's airstrip, their handlers giving them a chance to exercise before the next flight lands. Poznan has the kind of shiny new airport that might make you keen on flying again - no queues, no fuss about gels and liquids, and security men so charming it's a pleasure to unzip your, er, boots for them.

Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy-research NGO based in London that works globally

Also by Camilla Toulmin in openDemocracy:

"Africa: make climate change history" (16 May 2005)

"The G8 and climate change: a campaigners' scorecard" (12 July 2005) - with Saleemul Huq

"Why Montreal matters" (1 December 2005)

"Montreal scorecard: Kyoto 157, United States 1" (13 December 2005)

"The G8 summit: don't forget climate change" (12 July 2006) - with Saleemul Huq

"Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

"Bali: no time to lose" (30 November 2007) 

Welcome to Poland; and farewell, as on this occasion I am waiting for a delayed flight back to London's Stansted - after a demonstration against air-travel-fuelled climate change blocked departures. This too is part of the kaleidoscope of events, meetings, plenaries, negotiations and dramas that constitute the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) meeting held in this western Polish city on 1-12 December 2008. And you can more than see the point: while the weather in Poznan has been mild (confounding my choice of clothes), the conference-centre, restaurants and bars have felt tropical. Poland must have burned up its entire CO2 allowance to welcome delegates from around the world - or merely offered them a taster for what global warming will bring.

A puzzle in pieces

A "conference of the parties" (COP in climate-change jargon; Poznan is "COP14" in the series) is a funny way of doing business, especially when its ostensible purpose is saving the planet. A COP is a giant mosaic of meetings, huddles and parties in a set of hangars bedecked by the banners of a hundred community groups, business alliances and NGOs. If you're not careful you can spend a week without eating a proper meal, hanging out at side-events and grazing the canapés. Everyone starts to look rather grey, especially the morning after the NGO party - acknowledged to be the best show in town.

But if life on the fringe is abuzz with new ideas and initiatives, there's not a lot happening in the formal negotiations. Maybe the arrival of the ministers as the summit approaches its conclusion will infuse it with life. Their input is needed to provide a sense of the jigsaw-puzzle to be put together between now and COP15, in Copenhagen on 30 November-11 December 2009. Once the shape and combination of the different pieces becomes clearer, then we on the fringes can help to make things happen.

For the moment, there is a Barack Obama-sized hole in Poznan. True, John Kerry and Al Gore are putting in an appearance, and United State senate staffers are listening in on much of the debate. But in a possible portent, discussions about bailing out the big US car companies and using the financial crisis as a means to design an eco-economic recovery are for the moment eclipsing anything decided in this attractive Polish city.

Yvo de Boer, who chairs the secretariat of the UNFCCC, summed up the as-yet provisional nature of the final summit text in his inimitable, laconic style: "We are near to the end of putting things in and near to the beginning of taking things out". His imprecision has a purpose: for after the Poznan COP closes there will be another month before the new US administration takes office - a very significant month if the global deal is to move beyond the George W Bush approach to making jigsaws, which is to get out the Monopoly set instead. By shifting the "end of the beginning" to after Barack Obama's inauguration on 20 January 2009 is to give the new president, and the world, a chance to play Diplomacy.

A Europe-shaped hole

What about the European Union? The less said at this stage the better: for the moment at least it has abandoned its ambition to be leader of the pack, while becoming mired in squabbles about how much the climate plan will cost and how to distribute the burden. Nicolas Sarkozy, with his calculating political sense and restless ambition to be recognised as president of Europe (at least until 31 December 2008) as well as France, has been devoting his energies to making concession-filled green technology and carbon-capture deals with his Polish, German, and British counterparts at the parallel European Union summit on 11-13 December 

The mood-music may say otherwise, but overall this doesn't look good for Europe. If the EU fails to act unitedly, Obama may be tempted to agree bilateral deals with China and India - and then present Europe with a fait accompli rather than have to negotiate and compromise at Copenhagen. Ultimately, it's the big greenhouse-gas emitters who call the shots in this game: they are the ones with something to trade. It's long past time for Europe to get together and be really ambitious.

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openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change:

Stephan Harrison, "Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)
Adapt, or sink

This in turn highlights the predicament of the poorer nations of the global south. The argument for adaptation to (as opposed to mitigation of) climate change is one that they - in the form of the least-developed countries (LDCs), the small island states (SIS), and the NGO supporters of both - have taken up. They hope for very real progress at Poznan; and the lack of other obvious likely achievements from the rest of the talks means that the Polish government might yet seize on this theme.

It would in principle be simple to make progress on adaptation - even if it still seems the poor relation, the Cinderella of Poznan. The COP13 at Bali in December 2007 set up an adaptation fund (AF), which now needs to have its status as a legal entity recognised. The chair of the AF board, Richard Muyungi of Tanzania, explained that agreement is still needed to allow countries to access the fund directly, rather than having to go through the body that still tries to act as gatekeeper for most international finance: the World Bank.

The funds available for adaptation are as yet tiny. The adaptation fund will get the proceeds from a 2% levy on transactions under the clean-development mechanism (CDM). There are proposals to top this up with a tax on airline flights, or the equivalent of a Tobin tax on foreign-exchange flows.

The LDCs and SIS argue, rightly, that this is not aid but compensation for the damage caused to them by those responsible for emissions. So, rather than have to follow the cumbersome procedures laid down by aid agencies and development banks, the funds should be made available in much simpler ways, with a minimum of red tape. Each LDC has got a national adaptation plan lined up for funding, yet only one of these has as yet received any support. So the AF is much needed. Amjad Abdulla from the Maldives, who chairs the LDC group, says it is would be very difficult for him yet again to go back home at the end of the Poznan COP with nothing to present to the government and people of his new democracy.

The cost of inaction

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED's) weekend events on the theme of "climate change and development" (jointly run with the Stockholm Environment Institute [SEI] and the International Institute for Sustainable Development [IISD]) brought in more than 500 people - so there's certainly a crowd of people wanting to share ideas about how best to address impacts. Martin Parry, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, argued at one session that adaptation is being seriously underestimated. Because the costings for adaptation have been back-of-the-envelope calculations, people discount them and focus instead on the price of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and moving to a low-carbon economy. These figures look big - even though they are still miniscule by comparison with what propping up the banking sector has and will cost.

But do we know the true cost of adaptation, and how much can actually be managed before it gets impossible? Setting the cost of adaptation too low also encourages people to think that delays in reducing carbon emissions are affordable. Martin Parry warns, however, that every year's delay in cutting emissions itself increases both the price of adaptation and the risk of devastating impacts. With emissions rising around the world, the possibility of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C is becoming more and more remote. The implication is that we must focus much harder not on the costs of action, but on the horrendous costs of inaction.

Back at Poznan airport, the police are bringing the dogs to heel. A dot forms in the distance, the shuttle-bus hovers, the waiting passengers position themselves and their bags to jostle their way to the front of the queue. It looks like I'll get home today after all. The circus continues. Next time, let's hope, with a ringmaster of steely gaze and far sight. The world has need of you.