Into the Belly of the Beast: a just transition away from coal.


COP24 Blog 2

December 4, 2018, update from
the UNFCCC (The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) climate talks in Poland, COP 24

This map of Europe shows how much carbon is released relatively in generating electricity. Poland, host country of COP 24, is shown in black because it emits the most carbon, primarily from burning coal.

As my husband Larry and I exited baggage claim, in Katowice, Poland, we both wrinkled our noses at the smell we first thought was indoor tobacco smoke.  Once outdoors, the smell and prickle of fine particulates got more unpleasant. Simultaneously we realized it was the acrid smell of burning coal.  Katowice in Silesia, in the south of Poland, is the heart of Europe’s coal country.

As we rode through the murky darkness, I asked our driver to identify lit-up landmarks on the hill side. The first was a church, and the second a coal mine. We had heard that coal dominated the Polish economy, certainly here in Silesia. One of the reasons that Katowice is the host city for COP 24 is that we were entering “in the belly of the beast.” Combustion of coal – the fossil fuel that gives off the most carbon dioxide pollution for the least amount of energy – is the driving factor behind our planet’s increase in severe weather, drought-induced wild fires, sea level rise, and coral reef death. Reducing coal use is the most important part of the essential transition to a low carbon economy. IPCC scientists agree that we have less than 12 years to make significant progress to avoid the most dangerous impacts that irreversibly threaten our delicately balanced eco-systems and our civilization which relies on them.

Even in the car, breathing was difficult and the long-forgotten smell of coal burning from my youth was oppressive. After some hesitation, I mentioned coal to our driver. He explained that coal is “complicated.” Poland exports higher value hard coal for power plants elsewhere in Europe, and buys about the same amount of softer, dirtier coal for electrical generation, industrial use and home heating, mostly from Russia.

Who knew? (More detailed info about coal trading: The driver said heating one’s house with gas was better–no need to stoke the fires by shoveling coal or deal with ash disposal, but many, especially in rural areas away from gas lines, still rely on coal. Alas, there are no pollution controls on inefficient residential furnaces.  He spoke of lots of people, especially children, sick with asthma and other diseases. Still the addiction to coal persists.

So began for me, Rotary International’s Observer Delegate, the next round of talks to coax our world leaders to fulfill commitments – “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) – agreed to as part of the Paris accords at COP21– in Paris. So much more is at stake than we wanted to admit. For the most part most countries’ have reduced as little as 1/3 of their commitments to stay at 2.0ºC average warming, when what we really need is to stay below 1.5ºC.

I guess we are in Katowice, because if it is possible to move beyond coal here, we might be able to repeat our success throughout the world. It is alarming that so many in the talks have a vested interest in “Business as Usual” and so see this transition as potentially “unjust.”

For me it is the havoc being wreaked by carbon pollution that is unjust. Monday’s theme is Just Transition and Decent Jobs. Meeting those requirements will be crucial to achieving a zero carbon economy.

What role can Rotarians play in helping to meet that challenge?