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Climate and Environment

Climate and Environment

Published on January 30, 2014
Speech by Marie-Hélène Aubert, Adviser to the President of France on international negotiations on climate and environment

National Council for Science and Environment Annual Conference, Crystal City VA, January 30 2014

Dear Peter Saundry,
Distinguished guests and participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and honor to speak to you today. For many years, the National Council for Science and the Environment has been one of the leading American voices working for a better inclusion of environmental science in decision-making. Its ability to gather such a wide variety of distinguished scientific, educational, business and political figures for this conference today bears testimony to its reputation and influence. I also see the theme chosen for this year, “building climate solutions”, as a testimony of the deep mutations that we are observing in the global conversation on climate change.

This shift, mind you, is not found in the latest climate science. If there is something we can say about the fifth IPCC report, is that it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has lent an ear to the warnings of leading climate scientists in the past decades – many of whom are in this room today. The assessment report delivers a diagnosis that is as clear and disturbing as it’s ever been: climate change is real, caused by us, happening now, and our current failure to address it appropriately is putting us on track for a four degrees Celsius warmer world. This four degrees planet, as the World Bank reminded us recently, would be radically different from the one we call home.

Fortunately, I do believe that a paradigm shift is happening in the way we are talking about climate change and dealing with it – and not just in France or the United States. Countries that many climate advocates had given up on, such as China, are getting back in the game. Companies come to see sustainability not as unaffordable generosity, but a proof of efficient management. Investors are finally taking climate disruption for what it is – one of the biggest systemic risks we’ve ever known. Clean technologies that were derided, not long ago, as a waste of public money are becoming mature and competitive.

All these signs are converging towards a new narrative – one that, without ignoring the hard truths delivered by the latest science, presents climate change not just as a potential constraint, but also as an opportunity. An opportunity to rethink and reinvent, to conceive smarter and build stronger; to value “better”, over “more”. An opportunity to make low-carbon economies not just something that we need, but something we want – because it delivers meaningful jobs, happier and healthier lives, and reinforced social bonds.

What France is striving to do is to seize this opportunity, and actively facilitate with all partners and stakeholders the conclusion of an ambitious, universal climate agreement that can help bring this narrative to life. We are also intent on supporting, promoting and catalyzing climate-friendly initiatives outside the negotiations, under a “positive agenda” that can help encourage the talks – showing that low-carbon solutions are economically and politically feasible. We want these initiatives to reinforce and multiply themselves ahead of the UN Secretary General’s “climate summit” next September, so that they can receive political, financial and, we hope, legal support in Paris.

President François Hollande announced, as early as 2012, France availability’s to host the international climate negotiations in 2015 – or “COP21”, in the UN jargon – because he believes our nation has to endorse its responsibilities. As Foreign Affairs minister Laurent Fabius said during the Warsaw climate talks last November, upon acknowledging France’s designation as the host of the 2015 conference: “we accept this mission with humility, because the challenge is considerable; we accept it with responsibility, because we want it to bring about solutions.”

We have some advantages in our hands: internationally recognized climate scientists, the world’s third largest diplomatic network, some of its most innovative clean tech companies, and though much remains to be done, we are putting ourselves on a path of ecological and energy transition. To be the summit’s host country, we also had another considerable advantage over the competition… there was no other volunteer! Which doesn’t take away much from our pride to have been chosen for this critical task!

We are fully aware that the world cannot afford to miss another rendez-vous with the climate challenge. Between the climate talks and the negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals, which must complete and reinforce each other, 2015 will be a decisive year. If Paris fails to deliver, the declining faith of the public in international climate negotiations will probably be damaged beyond repair. And if we don’t take rapid and decisive actions to curb our emissions before 2020, the door of the 2°C warming limit will slam in our face.

We are aware of the difficulties, the challenges ahead. And yet, we remain hopeful. Some saw the recent Warsaw climate talks as proof that the divides between countries are just too large to allow cooperation, even on this common challenge. They said the tone of the discussions reminded them painfully of the pre-Copenhagen phase. But we perceived it differently. Yes, there were countries that acted tough, making consensus very difficult to reach. It is because they know that there is a lot at stake for them, in terms of efforts, in terms of impacts. We would be worried if Warsaw had happened in a deafening silence – but the noise that it made shows that countries have understood that the process will deliver in 2015, and that they must actively take part in defining the outcome. And we are well aware that there will not be any meaningful outcome without positive perspectives of sustainable development for emerging and developing countries.

For France, there are a handful of key criteria that would make such an outcome successful:
- First, it must be universal. We cannot continue to ignore the fact that the world has changed since countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, more than twenty years ago. The Kyoto protocol currently binds nations that represent a small and declining share of the world’s emissions, with reduction targets that are not in line with what science recommends. Every country must prepare to hop on the climate action train before it leaves the station;
- Second, the agreement must be ambitious. It cannot be a half-empty political declaration, or a collection of minimal reduction targets. It must catalyze the kind of action needed to put the world on a path consistent with the 2°C objective, harnessing national commitments as well as sectorial initiatives from coalitions of countries, the private sector, and civil society at large;
- Third, the agreement must be flexible. On that condition only, can it be universal and ambitious. We cannot get everyone on board if we do not design a spectrum of different kinds of possible actions and commitments, suited to the countries’ respective responsibilities and capacities. And, we cannot create a positive spiral of ambition if the agreement has to be re-negotiated every time someone raises their level of contribution.

Universal, ambitious and flexible: we know that in these three words lie many ambiguities, many different definitions. We also know that another key word – binding – will cause many headaches and sleepless nights. And we know that providing climate finance for developing countries, particularly Africa, will be essential to put a positive and engaging spin on these words. But, more importantly, we know that words are not everything. Facts also matter, and many are pointing to the need, and the possibility, of a global climate agreement.

The recent tragedy that occurred in the Philippines has given us yet another glimpse of what could be expecting us if we don’t take strong, sustained action. Sometimes, these tragedies happen even closer to home. Just in the past few weeks, France has experienced a brutal storm on its west coast, and floods in the south-east, which caused hundreds of millions in damage and claimed several lives. Such dramatic impacts call for better systems of anticipation, rapid response, and recovery. Inspiring examples exist here, in the United States. New Orleans and New York have shown us that citizens can emerge from a catastrophe grieved and traumatized, but also ready to rebuild cleaner and more resilient cities.

Some of these realities have yet to find their way into mainstream politics. Unfortunately, the bi-partisan support that climate action enjoyed just a few years ago on the Hill seems like a distant memory. But President Obama, with his climate action plan, has restored confidence on the capacity of the United States to provide some leadership in the run-up to 2015. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, is devoting a good amount of his efforts, and his great charisma, to making climate change a key aspect of bilateral relations with China, and push both countries out of the mutual blame-game. And his administration, like France and other international donors, has decided to drastically curb the financing of coal-powered projects overseas.

For the sake of the future international climate regime, much still needs to happen. Even the best possible global agreement is all but worthless if it misses the crucial step of national ratifications. I cannot pretend to know how this can be achieved, but I think inspiration could come from one expression that is currently popular in the climate negotiations: “homework”. Homework may seem like a trivial, almost childish way to refer to such serious matters, but it does mean this: if we want a meaningful global deal in 2015, every country will have to do their homework. They will have to engage with political and business decision-makers at home; summon their absolute most in terms of emissions reduction pledges and financial contributions, making sure it stays in line with science; convince their public opinion that a deal is in the national interest, but also that it works for them and their family; spark renewed saliency of climate change in the media, the academia, the NGO community – and much more. Anyone with an interest in our climate future must ensure that this homework is done, and well done… in the United States and elsewhere.

So, as you may have understood from my intervention, France does look across the Atlantic with great attention. But I want to make clear that we do so without any form of resignation, or overconfidence:
- no resignation, because we observe the efforts deployed by the Obama administration with great hope, and will keep assisting these initiatives in whatever way we can – within the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, through the 2015 “climate-smart agriculture” conference in Montpellier, and of course at the occasion of bilateral exchanges on the future agreement. President Hollande’s upcoming visit in the United States will be a key opportunity to reaffirm, and reinforce, this support.
- no overconfidence or arrogance, because France also has key battles ahead, and they will not be easily won. We are striving to gather our European Union partners around a strong objective for the 2030 climate and energy package, of at least 40 % emissions reduction relative to 1990. No one wants to be the first on the dance-floor, but we must show other countries that the ambition bar for 2015 is set high. Moreover, at the national level, we are preparing a framework law for the energy transition, which will outline the path that our energy system will take to face today’s challenges. We will reinforce our exemplarity by working towards an energy system that is low-carbon, cost-effective, and makes fossil fuels irrelevant.

In the run-up to 2015, as Laurent Fabius said, we will play proactively, collectively, and positively. We will strive to reinforce the level of ambition in the negotiations; ensure that everyone feels included in the discussions; and help change the dominant perception of climate change, from a burden to a challenge, full of opportunities. Proactive, collective, and positive: this is how we perceive our mission, and the path to success. We know that these priorities are shared by Peru, and we are confident that they will be reflected in Lima, which will be a key milestone on the road to Paris. I wanted to take this opportunity to state once again our will to work together, hand-in-hand, with Peru, for the meaningful outcome that both our countries want.

Echoing the theme of today’s plenary, France believes it is indeed time to move “from science to action”. We could keep kicking the can down the road, telling ourselves we have more time. We could keep passing the buck, accusing each other, denying our share of responsibility. As President Truman liked to say: “the buck stops here.”1 Actually, he liked this sentence so much that he even wrote it on a little wooden sign, and kept it on his desk. For COP21, we may just build a gigantic one and install it in the conference center!

Let us make this spirit of responsibility prevail in the next two years. Let us make Paris 2015 the completion of several processes and initiatives, but also and perhaps more importantly, the launching of many, many more, towards a real and shared sustainable development.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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