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Council on Foreign Relations - Climate change

Published on November 7, 2014
Statements by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development (excerpts)
New York, September 22, 2014



THE MINISTER – I’ve been told to speak about COP21, because France will chair – next year, in December 2015 – the great international conference about climate change. In fact I’m not speaking about climate change, I’m speaking about climate disruption, because it is disruption. And it is not for 2100, it is for now. Yesterday, there was a demonstration in the streets, and it was very chic: there was Mr Ban Ki-moon and Al Gore and the new mayor of New York. But what was more important is that there were a lot of people, throughout the world. And I think the awareness of the problem of climate disruption is more and more acute. A few years ago, there were discussions on whether it was real or not, from a scientific viewpoint, whether it existed or not. I’m not – well, I was not – a specialist, but I had to become one if I wanted to chair next year. And my belief is very clear:
it’s an enormous problem, not for the day after tomorrow but for now, not only because of environmental problems, but also because if we don’t do things it will change, in the worst way, a lot of other things – the economy, immigration, the risk of war – and therefore we have to act. Ban Ki-moon had a very good formula: somebody asked him, “Mr Secretary General, can we have a Plan B?”. And he answered, “There is no Plan B because there is no Planet B”. I think this phrase is very exact, and I asked permission to borrow it, because it is not only an excellent one but also very true.

What do we expect for next year? There will be intermediate steps.

This week is Climate Week, which is probably why we have chosen this topic today. And tomorrow we will have at the UN a lot of presidents, prime ministers – more than a hundred –, a lot of CEOs, a lot of governors, and it means that there is a growing awareness. We shall have a series of meetings afterwards, and at the end of this year we will have an international conference in Peru, in Lima, which is supposed to go ahead. Then we shall prepare for Paris next year, and in between – next March – all the nations are supposed to deliver their commitments for the future.

The problem, as you know, is that today the risk is that if we do not act in a very powerful way, the warming of the climate will not be only 2˚C but maybe 4, 5, 6ºC. When it comes to these figures it is a real catastrophe. Today we already see that because there are more and more extreme phenomena – when it is a question of rain, when it is a question of typhoons, when it is a question of drought –, if you compare things today to previous times, they are more and more extreme. Therefore we have to act in order to go to a low carbon economy if we want to remain under 2˚C, which will already be difficult. (…)

As I see it, we shall try to have four pillars to the conference.

The first one, which is very very difficult, is to have a universal agreement about what is legally admitted and what is not. It is very difficult, because obviously the position of different countries – developing countries, developed countries – and different continents are not the same, but if we want to keep control of this climate phenomenon, we have to come to an agreement. It is precisely because it is difficult that it is not left only to ministers of the environment but to ministers of foreign affairs, because they are supposed to be good at finding agreements – I don’t know if it is true.
The situation is much better than before. You have probably heard about failure in Copenhagen and other conferences. But today the situation is, to a certain extent, better, because we have the two major emitters – I mean the US and China – which, as I see it, have decided to go in the right direction. The US – at least the government, President Obama, John Kerry, a series of people, a series of governors, a series of CEOs – have understood what all that is about. I think the US is dedicated to going ahead. At the same time, the Chinese authorities are in the same mood. Why? Because – and most of you have been to China – it is a real catastrophe. In Beijing, in other cities, towns, it is sometimes not possible to go in the streets because of the pollution. It is not only an economic problem, it is a social and political problem, because there have been riots, and you have a growing number of people in international companies who do not want to work in Beijing or other towns, because it is now impossible for reasons of health. And therefore the Chinese have decided, as I see it, to go ahead. There are conversations between China, the US, ourselves and other partners to see what can be done. Therefore the first pillar is to try and have an international agreement, especially a differentiated one: obviously what will be required from a developing country will not be exactly the same as from a rich country. First pillar.

Second, before next March, it was decided at the previous international conference in Warsaw that all the nations must give their proposals and even their commitments for the coming years: 2020, 2030 and so on. It is not legally binding, but it will give everybody an indication as to what the prospect is, and how we can remain, through national commitments, under 2ºC.

The third one is about finance and technology. When you discuss these matters with poorer countries, they say, “it is good, but how can we finance it and what is the technology?” We have to coin elements:
probably you have heard about the Green Climate Fund, which was decided a few years ago but is not yet capitalized, and probably tomorrow, when the heads of state and government will intervene, some of them will say, “we shall put in $500 million, $1 billion”. The figure may seem enormous, but it is doable that in 2020, when you add public contributions and private contributions – because more and more private companies are going in that direction – $100 billion a year can be dedicated to the environment and climate betterment.

The fourth element, which is rather new, is that we shall establish a sort of book about the actions, initiatives, which are taken by local authorities, governors, great cities, private companies, financing agencies and economic sectors going in that direction, because more and more people are understanding that it is not only a moral necessity but also an economically good investment, because it is the place where the improvements and productivity and rates of return can be excellent.

When you add these four elements – international agreements, national commitments, finance and technology, different sub-governmental and economic sectors – you have the conditions of success. Obviously it will be very difficult to convince the international community to go in that direction, but it is probably one of the most important challenges we have to face. (…)

You may wonder, why ask ministries of foreign affairs to deal with that? The answer is simple. It is not only a question of environmental technique, it is a question of peace or war, of water, of migration because of the extension of deserts; it is a question of being able to give food to people, because if you have a 5ºC temperature rise, it is a catastrophe for a whole series of things. Therefore as citizens it is a real challenge, and each of us in our different positions has to to consider what we can do. Obviously – and we were talking about it – you have to combine ideals and reality, because we are dealing with real things. But I think this challenge is one of the greatest ones which is proposed to us, and I am happy that France will chair the conference next year. (…)

It was a real problem; there is a difference between Copenhagen and now. The second point – and I will learn the lesson – is that in Copenhagen it was difficult to prepare. The idea was that, in the end, if political leaders were coming, they would have a conversation together and find a solution. They went together and they did not find a solution. Well, they were able to deliver a paper, but they came back to the Assembly and the Assembly said no. Therefore the modest lesson I have drawn from that is that we have a lot of work beforehand. On my agenda, I have put a series of meetings – it is terrible! – next week, international meetings, because everyone has to be able to express what their difficulties are, and you have to take into account these difficulties and try to find a solution. And the idea that the supreme political leaders can solve the question at the end of the day is wrong. Therefore we will put in a lot of work, try to be modest; if the political leaders can help us, with statements, it is excellent, but the job must be done beforehand. That is the reason why this year, in this Climate Week, it is important to work well; it is important that in Lima we make progress, and step by step, in the G7, the G20, in special meetings, to have progress. It does not guarantee success in Paris but maybe it will permit it.

Finance/Green Climate Fund

Q. – You, and France, put a lot of emphasis on the financial aspects; you did it in your remarks. Of course you are here not only at the home of the UN but the home of world finance. Maybe say a little more about this fund, this $100 billion fund: what would be the mechanism? Who would allocate it? How does the money get in?

THE MINISTER – Well it is not very clear for now. First, this fund, the Green Climate Fund, has to be capitalized. Experts consider that if we have $10 to 14 billion, by a leverage effect, and adding what is done by private companies and different financial agencies, it could come to $100 billion. I think, I hope, it is not difficult to come to $10 or 14 billion. The only country that has committed for now is Germany. France will deliver the figures tomorrow or the day after tomorrow when the President comes, after which we should reach the figure. And afterwards we have to specify the way everything is handled, and how it goes.

Public finance would be important, sure, but what is probably much more important – and there has been work on that: Henry Paulson has published a report – is that when you are thinking about the sectors where you can have innovation in the future and earn a lot of money, you have information technology, but in the energy sector and environmental sector – green growth – there are a lot of possibilities that are interesting not only from a climate viewpoint but from an financial viewpoint as well. We hope – you know this question of green bonds – if we are able to show the economic community that it is not only useful from a moral point of view but also from an economic point of view, there are good things to do and they will be done.

Q. – One of the things under discussion – and it has been discussed in Paris – is an international financial transaction tax to help finance that. Do you see that as something that could be on the agenda ?

THE MINISTER – It has been decided at a European level, not for all countries, but for some of them: Germany, France and some others. There are discussions; some say it is not a good idea and it will be counterproductive because some countries will accept it, some will not, and therefore the finance will go where there is no tax. At the present level, it is not a problem. If it were increased in rate it could cause a problem. Today, we could not have a general agreement on that. In the coming years, I don’t know. Today it is possible for European countries, but it would be an illusion to hope to have that in the next year.

Energy/nuclear power/shale gas

Q. – France is unusual, in a very unique position among developed countries. You are about 4% of world GDP but only 1% in emissions. It could be because of nuclear power, which is 75% of your electricity.


Q. – Do you see, as you look at the rest of the world, a role for nuclear power in dealing with climate change?

THE MINISTER – Yes, and I see an evolution, even among the so-called environmental specialists. In the old days, a lot of ecologists were against nuclear power; I don’t mean that they are pro-nuclear today, but there are different elements. As you know, in terms of carbon emissions, well, nuclear does not produce carbon. It makes a difference. There is a problem of waste, but no problem of carbon. France is in a particular situation, because the proportion of electricity coming from nuclear energy is the highest: it is about 75%. Now decisions have been taken to have a more balanced figure, and we shall in the coming years come to 50%: 50% nuclear, and 50% other. The figure remains very high, it is the highest, but there is more balance. I know – because I am in charge of foreign affairs but also of foreign trade – that many countries are interested in nuclear energy. The first one is China. The prospects are enormous. Russia, as well, is producing. You have projects in India, South Africa and Turkey. Then there is the particular situation of Japan, which is a nuclear country, but then there was the Fukushima catastrophe; therefore they have to restart. Obviously nuclear energy is possible only if security is very tight, and France is the highest for that. So I think there is a possibility for the future, sure.

Q. – One difference between the US and Europe on dealing with climate is around natural gas. Our emissions are down about 12%, a big part of that is natural gas. The Obama administration has made gas an important part of its climate agenda. What is the attitude of Europe about using more gas, developing more gas?

THE MINISTER – You mean shale gas?

Q. – Shale gas, both in terms of producing and of using.

THE MINISTER – Well, there are different attitudes and different problems. On shale gas, some countries think it is a great prospect, and they want to go in that direction more and more: for instance the UK. Some other countries had great expectations in the research field, but maybe were a bit disappointed: I’m thinking of Poland. Some other countries – and it’s the case for France – are reluctant because of the side effects of shale gas. Obviously, the main issue is not to be for or against shale gas: shale gas is interesting at a certain price. If it is too costly to produce because of environmental constraints, it is useless.
In the US, you have vast territories and can produce shale gas at a very competitive level. Therefore Europe is concerned – though attitudes from different countries are various, but some countries will definitely use it. Gas, more generally speaking, is of course a major resource. But where does it come from? Some countries are producers, but many of us are importing – from Russia, Qatar, Norway, different countries. Up until now, European policies have not been very efficient. What must the aims of an energy policy be? A) security, B) price, C) the fact that it is compatible with the environment. These are the three major elements. And yet, when you look at these criteria, up to now European policies have not been very efficient. It is one of the major objectives of the new Commission – since, as you know, there is a new Commission. We have to be competitive, we have to deal with environmental issues, and we have the question of security, particularly because of the Ukraine and Russia problem. Therefore my guess is that in the coming years the energy question – and particularly gas – will be one of the major ones: it will be at the top of the agenda for Europe. (...)./.

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