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19th Jan 2020

UN text not yet ready for ministers, says EU climate czar

  • EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete (r) at the climate summit in Katowice (Photo: European Commission)

It is not yet possible to assess if the United Nations climate summit in Poland will be a success, the European Union's top negotiator, EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, has admitted.

He told a handful of journalists, including EUobserver, on Tuesday (11 December) that some progress has been made, but that there are still many disagreements over the texts under negotiation.

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  • Poland is hosting the 24th international climate conference (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"No text is universally agreed by everybody. It's a complex agreement and everyone has to find itself in the final text," said Canete.

The Spanish politician represents the EU at the talks, which are held at UN-level every year and are known under the name Conference of the Parties (COP) - this is the 24th one such summit, thus called COP24.

One of the main goals of this year's climate summit is to achieve a so-called 'rulebook' which will contain ways to verify promises made at an earlier climate summit, in the French capital Paris in 2015.

The Paris agreement on climate change was the first-ever global deal on taking climate action, and has been tremendously important in spurring countries, businesses, and citizens into action.

Talks are between almost 200 sovereign states.

"The COPs are never easy," said Canete, adding that each country has its own priorities.

"Everyone has its own position but we have to have a common agreement," he added.

COPs normally last two weeks, with senior diplomats preparing a text in the first week that contains a number of options that their political masters will then have to butt heads over.

'Not appropriate for ministerial engagement'

According to Canete, there is still more work needed at the diplomatic level before ministers can take over.

"It's not a specific difficult point. The problem is that the text we currently have on the table [is] not appropriate for ministerial engagement," he said.

"It's Tuesday and the ministers have not been involved," he warned.

"We still haven't finished all the medical text of the patient to have a clear diagnosis where we are."

At the same time, Canete ended his short talk with journalists on an optimistic note.

"We will manage to have a reasonable rulebook. The European Union is going to do all the needed efforts that you have a rulebook that makes operational the Paris agreement," he said.

Before that, the EU commissioner had dismissed a journalist's question asking if Europe would announce more climate ambition.

"Europe has already raised its ambition," he said.

"I am very comfortable. We have the most ambitious targets of all the parties here," Canete noted.

He listed the various pieces of legislation that have painstakingly put into place in the past years, which together are projected to reduce the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by some 60 percent in 2050, compared to 1990 levels.

One of those is still under negotiation. On Monday, representatives of the three main EU institutions - commission, European Parliament, Council of the EU - met in Strasbourg for talks about new carbon dioxide limits for cars and vans for 2030.

"There was no agreement. It is a complicated exercise," said Canete.

Nevertheless, he stressed that no other region in the world had done its homework as well as Europe.

"We are very well placed in these negotiations," he said.

Yellow jackets protests?

The EU commissioner also said the ongoing protests of so-called yellow jackets in France were not impeding climate talks.

"It doesn't make my job difficult…This is internal French politics," he said.

The yellow jackets demonstrations began after the French government announced a tax hike for petrol and diesel fuel.

But Canete stressed that EU citizens, when asked about how concerned they are about climate change, say that their concern is either "high" or "very high".

He said that in future Europe's energy will be cheaper and cleaner, and that there will be different fuel sources, like electricity and hydrogen.

"It will be a quite different picture [compared to] what we are discussing today about taxation of fuels," he said.

Poland, coal-land

This year's climate conference is being organised in Katowice, in the Polish region Upper Silesia - a region that is known for its coal mines.

Coal is the fossil fuel that emits most carbon dioxide, and several EU states have already announced they wanted to get rid of it entirely.

Poland on the other hand has used the COP24 to promote coal products, and host discussions about "clean coal".

One pavilion showcases souvenirs made out of coal, including a soap bar called Sadza soap.

An explanatory text quoted designers of the Sadza soap: "Our classic product is strongly inspired by the Silesia Region where coal has always been the vital part of our culture, community and livelihood."

This raises the question whether Poland actually wants to phase out coal - which is the source for around 80 percent of its electricity.

But Canete asked for some understanding of Poland's situation.

"Poland has a very complex problem. It is an economy who has a high energy dependency at this moment," he said.

Canete stressed that Poland has started to develop renewable energy and is considering the use of nuclear power - which despite its unpopularity among environmental groups is much less impactful on climate change than power plants generated by fossil fuel.

"Poland is doing things. It's pretty clear that the Polish government is moving," said Canete.

"The speed of movement will have to be higher in the future, that's pretty clear. But this is a transition."

He referred to the European Commission's recent strategy for a climate neutral Europe by 2050, and in particular the chapter about the so-called just transition.

"What is pretty sure [is] that in 2050 coal will not be in the energy mix. We have to assure a transition, we have to re-industrialise coal-dependent areas," he said.

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