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29 January 2014 - Columbia University : “facing the challenges of climate change : how to achieve a global deal in Paris in 2015 ?” - Speech by Mrs. Marie-Hélène Aubert, Senior Policy Advisor to the French President for International Environmental and Climate Change negotiations

Thanks Emmanuel for your kind introduction.

Good morning everyone! It is nice to be with you today. It is a great honor to be invited here at Columbia University. Columbia is not only a leading academic institution. It has a long history of close partnership with France. So, I feel at home here.
Today, I am going to tell you about the challenge of climate change and how I feel the international community can address it.
It is definitely one of the greatest challenges ever. But it is often misread and poorly understood. So I am first going to elaborate on how serious it is.
I will next tell you what I think can be achieved between now and 2015.
Finally, I will tell you what the USA could do to help.

So, first let’s get back to basics.

Many of you know how serious the challenge of climate change is. But some others may think : “well, I have heard that experts still disagree about the real causes of global warming. Some even disagree about the fact of global warming. So, is this really an issue we should pay attention to ?”. Actually, the popular media may give you this impression.

But this is wrong. Let me tell you this : 99% of scientists around the globe agree on the reality and root causes of global warming. The greenhouse gas effect is just basic physics, not a far-fetched theory. The speeding up of global warming since the late XIXth century is well-documented. The science of global warming is clear and the role of carbon emissions is widely agreed. As President Obama said yesterday : “climate change is a fact”.

The only thing that is still not clear is the exact magnitude of global warming. The IPCC baseline scenario puts the likely increase from 1.8°C to more than 4°C by 2100. And nasty surprises are possible if, for example, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet in turn causes more melting. But the big picture is clear. And it is frightening.

There are several reasons why we cannot afford to delay action on global warming. For some countries, global warming is not a distant threat. It already hurts them. Extreme events, hurricanes, storms, desertification already kill people.

The future of some other countries is doomed, if no action is taken : if global warming goes on, sea levels will continue to rise and many island states will simply disappear.

As James Hansen, the leading US climate change expert, once pointed out : we cannot afford to gamble with our future, that is the future of our children and grand-children. Life, as we know it, evolved to fit the historically normal range of temperatures. It may be able to adapt. But it will take millions of years …And in the long term we are all extinct!...

So, let us be clear. We have to get rid of fossil fuels.

Technology is only part of the answer.

First, companies will not invest in cleaner technologies if the incentives are not there. And to get the incentives right companies and people should pay for the environmental damage they do. So we need to put a price on carbon.

We also need to better assess economic performance. GDP, for example, is a crude and, in many ways, misleading indicator of social and environmental progress. Unless we get broader and more relevant indicators, we cannot expect investors to go in the right direction.

Secondly, even cleaner technologies will not do the trick. For example, assume your economy gets 20% more energy-efficient. Is it safe to predict that emissions will be down by 20% ? Not so. You will get more profitable. But if you invest all the additional cash on just consuming more, the GHG emissions cut will be tiny.

So we need a “paradigm shift”. We need to change the way we work and even the way we live.

I would like to add a personal comment here. Soaring carbon emissions are not only an environmental problem. The problem runs deeper than that. It has to do with the way we interact with others. Runaway consumption has little to do with the pursuit of happiness. There is little point in consulting mainstream economics. Instead of looking at what you really need you look at what others have and try to challenge them. What is the best way to well being?

Anyway, the earlier we take action the better. This is because carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere for a very long time. So, you cannot simply wait until you have more cash or better technologies. Inaction is very costly and risky. And if you act too late it may even prove impossible to stop global warming.

Indeed, global warming is not like other more conventional forms of pollution. It is often hidden, insidious and perverse. It is quite tempting to overlook it in the first place. But then things get out of control. You can clean an oil spill, however large and damaging it may be. But global warming will take very long to reverse. Many experts even think it will soon get unstoppable.

Some rely on geoengineering. But geoengineering cannot work wonders. It won’t reverse climate change and we have no idea whether these technologies can work and how harmful they may be. Instead of lessening the harmful consequences of climate change, you may worsen them.

Now you may think : “OK, the challenge is serious. But the international community is not ready to do anything about it. It will take huge investments in clean technologies to replace carbon intensive industries. And western taxpayers are not willing to pay for them. They are chiefly concerned with their standards of living. Developing countries want to get rich and catch up with western countries. They are not ready to slow down their economic growth to curb global warming”. Fortunately, that is not quite true. The challenges are indeed huge. But our experience is that if you get the politics and the economics right you can move forward very fast and at a relatively low cost. And indeed we already have a wealth of very good stories to tell. Unfortunately, these stories are under-reported. Let me take a few examples challenging conservative wisdom.

Myth n°1 :” you cannot uncouple economic growth from rising GHG emissions”. Well, the EU has overachieved its Kyoto target by a wide margin while expanding its economy. Its total 2012 greenhouse gases emissions are 18% below its 1990 level. In the same time, its economy grew 45%.

Myth n°2 : “putting a price on carbon kills jobs and hampers economic growth”

Well, in the USA, the SO2 emission market has been a big unexpected success. It has addressed the problem of acid rains. Back in 1990, many conservative experts warned capping emissions would harm US competitiveness, kill jobs and cost a lot of money. Not so. Just the reverse happened : eradicating SO2 emissions was cheap and took only a couple of years. Far from losing out, US companies ended up cleaner and more profitable.

Similarly, in Europe in the early 90s many experts thought our companies would struggle to cut carbon emissions. The EU carbon market was under fire. Carbon prices, they predicted, were likely to soar.

Instead, EU companies managed to switch to low-carbon cost-effective technologies, the demand for emission allowances went down and carbon prices dived.

Myth n°3 : “renewables and energy efficient technologies are very costly and show no sign of getting more competitive”.

True, clean technologies are still costly. But, increasingly, they are getting competitive. For example, the cost of solar power has dropped exponentially since 1980. And, ironically, this is part of the reason why some EU and American companies were in big trouble during the last slump.

Myth n°4 : “apart from the EU and the US, the energy and climate transition is at best a remote prospect.”

Well, not so : all over the world things are changing rapidly.

The old North-South divide is narrowing. Emerging countries invest a lot in clean technologies. China is leading the way, together with India and Brazil. And there are new players. For example, in Latin America, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay are slowly catching up.

So, the good news is that we are gaining momentum and that there are great opportunities ahead.

And indeed, President Hollande and his government believe that a global deal is possible. And I can assure you we will do everything we can to facilitate a global forward-looking deal in Paris in 2015. We have already made good progress since Copenhagen. In Warsaw, we agreed on new rules to protect tropical forests. We set up a new mechanism to help the poor cope with loss and damage from heatwaves, droughts, floods, desertification and rising sea levels.

Most importantly, we clarified the timeline and the pathway from Warsaw to Paris.

We are also encouraging nations to get ready and put forward their plans to cut emissions by the first quarter of 2015.

At the French and EU level we are doing our homework. We already have a unilateral target of cutting emissions by 20% by 2020. And we are going to debate the EU commission’s proposal to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 (below the 1990 level). The EU commission also recommends raising the share of renewable energies to 27% of the energy consumption.

We have been working closely with the UNSG to help him prepare the September 2014 Climate change summit. This is a most welcome and most timely event. Hopefully, political leaders will commit there to strike a global deal in Paris in 2015. And early contributions may help raise the level ambition of the international community.

And we have been working closely with Peru to ensure that the framework agreement is already in place in Lima in late 2014.

Now, what will the Paris deal look like?

First, different countries have different needs, different concerns and different levels of development. The Paris agreement cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” deal. The contributions we are looking forward to may vary across countries. Their schedule and substance cannot be the same.

So, some flexibility is needed.

Secondly, adequate climate change financing is vital. We must live up to our Copenhagen commitment to raise dollars 100 billion a year after 2020.

Finally, the level of ambition and the level of transparency should be adequate. Carbon reduction plans should be sufficient to keep global warming under the 2°C limit. All countries should contribute one way or another. And the contributions should be transparent enough to build trust.

Surely, the civil society – that is: NGOs, associations, companies, local government, academics – has a big role to play. We expect them to take bold initiatives and showcase innovative practices. Most importantly, we feel that their commitment will make policymakers feel more comfortable and encourage them to move forward.

But in the end of the day, the “bottom up” and the “top down” approach should converge : without a binding agreement between governments, no global deal will be strong enough to persuade national and local players to stick to their commitments.

Now, I would like to stress that the USA, among other developed countries, will have a special role to play. What President Obama will do in Paris in 2015 will not only drive the world’s largest economy. He will also set an example for the rest of the world.

Of course, I am aware of the widespread American reluctance to embrace a fully-fledged UN Treaty. Yet a strong US commitment to a carbon-free growth pathway would be extremely helpful and announcements President Obama made yesterday are quite positive. World leaders and global markets would listen and would be encouraged to follow suit.

You may think – and rightly so – that global warming will mainly be about curbing emissions in big emerging countries in the coming decades. True, China has already overtaken the US as world’s biggest emitter. India is likely to catch up. These new economic powerhouses are changing the global balance of power.

But even big players like China or India will be quick to respond if they feel the US and Europe are serious about climate change action. They will feel it is time for them to move forward. And they may fear that if they don’t go along, their economies will fall behind.

So, my message is this: more than ever, we need the United States of America, together with Europe, to be ambitious and forward-looking.

The challenge of global warming is daunting and unprecedented. So we need to take action now. We need to learn to better cooperate. We need to rethink the way we work and live together.

I trust that the US will help us meet this new challenge.

I trust that we will be working together to make sure that the planet we are leaving behind is worthy of the generations to come.

Thank you for your attention.

Learn more on Climate change.

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