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At the forefront of the battle for a clean energy future

Interview with Adam Koniuszewski, co-founder of the Bridge Foundation. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt

December 3, 2018 - Adam Koniuszewski Adam Reichardt - Hot TopicsInterviews

"Education is a Window to the World" program students from Hoffmanowa High School in Warsaw. Photo: The Bridge Foundation

ADAM REICHARDT: Katowice Poland is hosting the COP24 – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. How important is it do you think that Poland is hosting this year’s COP24? And how symbolic is it that it is in Katowice – once a major hub of the Polish coal industry?

ADAM KONIUSZEWSKI: Poland is hosting its third climate conference in 10 years. This is unprecedented and significant for several reasons. Firstly, because Poland has long been in climate denial. In 2008, during the COP14 in Poznań one may remember that the Polish authorities had mixed feelings about climate change. After arriving in Brussels, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk had a change of mind and expressed regrets over his climate scepticism emphasising the importance of climate action in a video where he observes collapsing glaciers in Greenland. Russian President Vladimir Putin also said that a couple of additional degrees in Moscow in winter time may not be a bad idea. He changed his opinion after the 2010 forest fires that threatened to reach the Chernobyl radioactive affected areas.

In 2014, the hosting of COP19 in Warsaw was largely financed by the fossil fuel industry, attracting international criticism. This COP edition takes place in Katowice – the heart of what was Poland’s coal country. The city is in a transition from being a major coal and industrial centre to what should become an urban hub with modern conference halls, theatres and museums with better public transport and a green city centre providing quality of life for residents and attracting visitors. This makeover, albeit still at its early stage, is symbolic of what the climate conference is meant to accomplish: a transformation to a low-carbon future. And Poland, home to 33 of the 50 dirtiest cities in Europe should be at the forefront of this battle for a clean energy future. Interestingly, Katowice President Marcin Krupa has been a strong voice in the fight against smog. He is also one to admit that much remains to be done and while Poland is contemplating better building insulation and a modernisation of heating systems it is also struggling to move away from the cheapest and dirtiest coal. The 25,000 participants at COP24 will experience first-hand the Polish smog and see why moving to a clean energy future is a priority for the climate and for our health.

Adam Koniuszewski – co-founder of the Bridge Foundation.

Other countries face similar struggles. The last few days have seen massive unrest in France with protests over dirty-diesel fuel taxes that impact the poor and middle classes most. French car manufacturers and the French state had until recently promoted the technology as clean and innovative. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump is trying to help the ailing coal and nuclear industries with regulatory breaks and possible emergency “state aid measures” with little success. Against low-cost utility-scale wind and solar power, the economics no longer support the high-cost inefficiencies of coal and nuclear plants. Since 2010, 40 per cent of coal-fired power plants were shut-down or are planned to close despite the president’s help. In addition, a report mandated by the US Congress and just released by the White House has provided a devastating account on the impacts of climate change for the US economy with record devastation from the California wildfires, mounting crop failures and crumbling infrastructure in the South as early warning signals.   

Similarly, the American military is switching to renewables to power its military bases for both cost and national security reasons. The US Department of Defense is planning to get completely off oil by 2040. In short, the move away from fossil fuels is unstoppable for reasons of economics and matters of security. It is time to stop the rhetoric and get down to facts and numbers.

What in your opinion would be important outcomes of the COP24 in Katowice? 

The key objective of COP24 is to turn the aspirations and promises of the COP21 Paris Accord into concrete action with a set of rules to implement the agreement. Countries must also significantly raise the bar in terms of their national contributions to pollution reduction. Thirdly, the COP24 must provide practical solutions and financing for developing countries that are the first victims of climate change and are the least responsible for its impacts – they must adapt to climate change impacts and transition to a low-carbon future just like developed countries. Agreeing on fair and transparent rules for climate finance to scale-up solutions will determine the success of COP24. In short, COP24 is about moving from talk to action.

A key obstacle slowing the transition to a low-carbon future are the five trillion dollars of energy subsidies that mostly support the fossil fuel industry (source: IMF report) and the lack of a widely implemented and high enough price on carbon pollution. This is the most effective economic tool for reducing carbon pollution and the only realistic solution for speeding up climate action to meet the 1.5 degree target. Progress on eliminating dirty subsidies and implementing carbon pricing would turn COP24 into an unprecedented success. 

Project participants of your “Global Reading on Global Challenges” recently translated into Polish the book Fairytales for a Fairer World – a storybook initiative of the United Nations Director-General to promote the Sustainable Development Goals. This was launched in November at the Warsaw Stock Exchange. How was the project received in Warsaw? And what are the next steps for the project?

The “stars” of the November 5th launch at the Warsaw Stock Exchange were the young people and the many VIP guests, including members of the world of diplomacy with ambassadors from Italy, Switzerland and the Philippines and representatives from China, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom as well as Polish stars Małgorzata Kożuchowska and Tomasz Karolak. The event, hosted by the Warsaw Stock Exchange and its President Marek Dietl, brought together representatives from the international community in Poland including regional the head of the World Bank, Carlos Piñerúa, and EY Managing Partner for the region Jacek Kędzior. Video messages from Patricia Espinosa, Executive-Secretary of the UNFCCC organising the COP24 conference in Katowice and Paul Polman, global CEO of Unilever were showed. Messages were also presented from Michael Bloomberg, owner of the Empire State Building Anthony Malkin, President of the Global Chartered Financial Analyst Institute Paul Smith, and many others. Speakers from leading Polish institutions included Prof. Ewa Niewiadomska-Szynkiewicz from NASK (Naukowa i Akademicka Sieć Komputerowa), Prof. Andrzej Markowski from the Polish Academy of Sciences, Prof. Małgorzata Syczewska from the Children’s Memorial Health Institute, Anna Woźniak-Szymańska from the Polish Association of the Blind, and the most famous Sexologist in Poland, Prof. Zbigniew Izdebski. Representatives from the leading student associations and their presidents: Radek Łyko from the Erasmus Student Network Poland, Kamil Baran from ELSA Poland and Mateusz Zarzecki from IFMSA Poland. They spoke about their plans to organise events across the nation to raise global challenges and sustainable development goals awareness ahead of COP24 and beyond. The event was broadcast on Facebook Live and is still available for all to see.   

From Warsaw, we took the project to Switzerland with a high-profile event at the United Nations Library with Swiss students from Institut Florimont and representatives from the Swiss Youth Parliament Session. Experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007 Nobel Prize) and from the International Trade Center (ITC) took part in a lively discussion with the students. We also organised three conferences in Montreal the following week. Building on this success, we have been invited to additional conferences in Lublin, Kraków, Katowice, Wrocław and Gdańsk in the coming two weeks. More events are planned in several Canadian, Swiss and French cities during 2019.

The Bridge Foundation advocates for a greater awareness and implementation of a circular economy. How would you envision this in the future? And what steps can and should be taken to move in this direction? 

As revolutionary and innovative as the circular economy may appear, the concept is as old as the world. In a figurative and literal sense. Nature has always worked in cycles where nothing is lost or wasted. This is very different from how our linear take-make-waste economy works with programmed obsolescence at its core. A revolution in our way of thinking and doing is long overdue and the limits of the current system are increasingly clear on a planet with scarce resources. An efficient use of resources is at the essence of a circular economy and offers tremendous economic opportunities. An excellent example is the retrofit of the most iconic building in the world: the Empire State Building (ESB). The efficiency gains from an integrated combination of measures to improve insulation, lighting and the re-manufacture of 6,500 windows on-site into super-windows helped reduce energy use, costs and emissions by close to 50 per cent with a payback of three years! In contrast, the Palace of Culture retrofit in Warsaw is a missed opportunity to emulate the ESB example and show how a well-planned and integrated energy efficiency in buildings can be highly profitable. While the stand-alone measure of the Palace of Culture window-retrofit is expected to save 20 per cent of its energy once all the windows are changed, the adventure launched in 2017 will cost of 13 million Polish zlotys (over three million euros) and require moving 900 windows 300 kilometres to Suwałki to be refurbished. A stark contrast with the ESB strategy and a process that should only be completed in 2021. Buildings represent some 40 per cent of global energy use and emissions and the Polish building stock offers tremendous opportunities for energy, cost and emission improvements.

Given the Polish expertise in the production of energy-efficient windows (Poland is Europe’s leading exporter of windows) and the innovativeness and dynamism of Polish entrepreneurs, this is a missed opportunity for Poland to show the world that it can play a major role in helping Europe achieve energy independence and security at a profit through an integrated and efficient use of resources.

Nature has 4.6 billion years of experience and provides ample inspiration for how a circular economy should work. This concept is called biomimicry: copying nature. A first step is to eliminate waste and pollution from business and consumption models. My wife and Bridge Foundation President Margo Koniuszewski always talks of ending our culture of waste. “Stop the Culture of Waste” has become the motto of our campaign. In the circular economy products and services are recycled and reused to minimise losses of materials and resources – squeezing our waste and pollution that also represent costs and a drain on profitability. This is not only good for the environment but for the bottom line and the economy. More efficient businesses are also more profitable.

Industrial ecology provides excellent examples of how organisations can work together to turn waste into profit. Denmark has been a pioneer in this field with industries developing industrial ecology partnerships since the 1970s. Pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk has been buying excess heat from a local power plant and selling some of its own nutrient rich waste as fertiliser to local farmers. American carpet-tile manufacturer Interface has revolutionised the industry with innovations that include organic toxin-free carpets that are fully recyclable. Interface is on its way to achieving zero environmental impact by 2020 with zero-waste business practices and innovations that have driven its market share and stock performance for decades. First and foremost, eliminating waste and pollution must be recognised as an economic opportunity. The first steps are therefore awareness raising and education and are a priority for the Bridge Foundation in our activities with youth and leaders in business, government and beyond.

Do you see opportunities for young people in Central and Eastern Europe to get more engaged in environmental-related issues like sustainable development? And how would you advise young people to get more involved?  

There are close to two billion youth around the world and our collective future depends on our joint actions. The opportunity for young people in CEE is extraordinary and extends beyond what we consider to be questions of environment or sustainability. These are first and foremost economic decisions that have environmental and human consequences. Business is the salt of the earth but there is no business without nature. We must therefore restore, protect and enhance the natural capital that will determine our future prosperity and wellbeing. For too long we have depleted soils while wasting and polluting land, air and water on a planetary scale. The time has come to reverse course and it will largely be up to the young generation to fix the problems they inherited. Their ability to do so depends on the quality of their education and begins at home with their every-day decisions and actions. It also demands that we all work together and mobilise the resources necessary for the transition to a sustainable economic model.  This is why The Bridge Foundation is focused on education and practical action and the reason we mobilise the business and finance sectors. Capital markets will play a central role in financing this economic transformation. Launching our #GlobalReadingOnGlobalChallenges at the Warsaw Stock Exchange was no coincidence. 

Adam Koniuszewski is a Fellow Chartered Professional Accountant, Chartered Financial Analyst, Associate Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, executive in Residence at the Geneva Center for Security Policy and founder of the Bridge Foundation together with Margo Koniuszewski, who is also its President. He is the author of a report on carbon pricing for the World Bank that was published in a book on tax policy in early 2018 by Wolters Kluwer.

Adam Reichardt is editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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