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UN climate chief defends decision to attend coal summit amid youth anger

Christiana Figueres says “preaching to the choir” will not solve deeper problems relating to global warming

(Pic: UNFCCC)

(Pic: UNFCCC)

By Sophie Yeo

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has justified her attendance of a controversial coal summit by suggesting that no progress will be made on climate change by “preaching to the choir”.

In a letter to youth groups, in which she answers their criticisms of her contentious decision to attend the summit, she says that it is “not enough” to exclusively talk to those who are “deeply committed” to the cause.

“We need much, much more engagement; we need to build bridges beyond our circle of friends, in particular we need to engage those who could and should contribute in big ways to the solution,” she writes.

“It is only through such engagement that a global consensus on the critical problems of our times, and the options available to address them, will emerge.”

The role that coal will play at the Warsaw conference has been hotly debated, and the decision to run a coal summit alongside the talks has only inflamed the situation.

Coal plays a vital part in Poland’s energy mix, which generated 92% of its electricity and 89% of its heat in 2011. This has led some to suppose that its intentions in hosting a coal summit may not be entirely honourable.

In addition to youth protests, a coalition of green NGOs has also written to the UN climate chief, citing their “serious concerns” about the summit.

“By [going] we believe you would give it much more public attention and add your own (considerable) credibility to an event that should not be legitimized,” they says.

Painful necessity

But others believe that the problem of coal plays a key role in any discussions on the subject of climate change.

Giles Dickson of energy company Alstom, who will be speaking on CCS at the summit, told RTCC: “COP19 is all about combatting climate change. Which sector contributes most to CO2 emissions? The power sector. Which bit of the power sector contributes most of those emissions? It’s coal.

“So it’s vitally important that coal as an industry talks about how they can tackle that.”

Answering the youth group’s ultimatum that she will be unwelcome at Sunday’s youth conference unless she forfeits the coal summit, Figueres said: “It is therefore precisely because I stand with you and future generations, that I reach out to engage in a frank conversation with the coal industry, laying out how they must transform the industry in order to contribute to the solution.”

Louisa Casson, from youth group UKYCC, said that she wanted to be “very clear” that their stance was not a personal attack on Figueres, but expressed their concern that the presence of a high level UN official would “legitimise” the aims of the coal industry.

She said: “We’re hearing a lot about ‘green solutions’, but actually clean coal is not a green solution. Clean coal is not compatible with a safe and fair and sustainable future.”

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