The Polish government’s decision to put the coal industry front and center at this year’s UN climate negotiations has sparked a backlash from young people and civil society groups who are determined to challenge the social license of coal companies and the broader fossil fuel industry.
“It’s time to start treating the fossil fuel industry like Big Tobacco,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, an international climate campaign. “When it comes to the UN Climate Talks, the fossil fuel companies aren’t just looking for a seat at the table, they’re looking to burn the table down. Until we can challenge their political power, we won’t see real climate progress.”
At the Climate Action Network press conference in Warsaw today, a representative from YOUNGO, the youth constituency at the talks, will speak about the growing divestment movement that is going after the social license of the fossil fuel industry.
“The fossil fuel industry’s business model is fundamentally opposed to the survival of people across the world and a decent life for my generation,” said Louisa Casson, communications officer with the UK Youth Climate Coalition. “The industry is making a desperate attempt for relevancy here at COP19, but their time is up, they have no future. These talks must be about the future of my generation and generations to come.”
YOUNGO are planning a variety of actions here in Warsaw to target the fossil fuel industry and stand in solidarity with the millions of people in the Philippines and around the world who are feeling the impacts of climate change. YOUNGO will also be hosting a side-event focused on the divestment movement.
The growing fossil fuel divestment campaign has spread to over 500 universities, cities and religious institutions across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Nearly 50 institutions have already divested, including the UK Quakers, the United Church of Christ in the United States, major cities like Seattle and San Francisco, and a growing number of universities. Large pension funds, such as Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, are considering divestment from fossil fuels like coal.
Activists are already labeling the Warsaw negotiations the “Coal COP” (Council of the Parties) and pushing the U.N. Secretariat and progressive countries to take a stronger stand against the industry.
In the weeks leading up the negotiations, the Polish government has doubled down on its embrace of the coal industry, making it clear they have no plans to seriously address consumption or emissions. The government is partnering with the World Coal Association to hold a major coal summit during the second week of the climate talks. Coal fired power plants are the largest source of greenhouse gas emission in the world, making coal the number one threat to the climate.
“Hosting a coal and climate summit side-by-side is like throwing a cigarette expo next to a meeting of cancer experts,” said 350.org’s executive director, May Boeve.
All of the emphasis on coal, however, has only served to cast more of a spotlight on the fragile state of the industry.
In the United States, coal demand has fallen by about 20% over the last five years, while environmental regulations in Europe will force the closure of many coal fired power plants over the next decade. The drop in demand has resulted in a similar drop in share price for many coal companies, sometimes by as much as 75%.
The situation for the industry will only get worse. According to a slew of recent reports by institutions like the World Bank, HSBC, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 60-80% of current fossil fuel reserves must stay underground in order to limit global warming to below 2°C.
Coal, and other high-carbon, unconventional fuels such as tar sands, are likely to be the hardest hit by the tightening carbon budget. The threat of these reserves turning into stranded assets has led many investors to start shedding their coal industry stocks, and fueled fears of a carbon bubble resulting from the overvaluation of fossil fuel companies. The prices of some coal mining companies have plummeted 75%, while many others have gone out of business.