As the COP20 comes to a close in Peru, France is starting to prepare the COP21 which it will host in 2015, H.E. Mr Jean-Paul Monchau, the Ambassador of France explains the importance of these conferences which are significant milestones in the field of international climate change mitigation. Interview conducted by staff at the French Embassy in Colombo. 

What was the COP20 and what is the COP21?

“COP” stands for the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change; the COP conference is an annual international event which takes place in a different country every year. The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) will be held in Paris in 2015.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992. It has been ratified by 195 Parties, including Sri Lanka in June 1992. COPs have been held every year since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

In 2011, seeing the failure of the Kyoto Protocol -whose aim was to implement the UNFCCC, the Parties declared their will to establish a new climate agreement in 2015, with entry into force planned for 2020. France was officially designated as the host of the 2015 COP21, one of the the most decisive COPs of all time! It will also be the largest conference ever hosted by France.

This year, the 20th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP20) was held from the 1st to the 12th of December in Lima, Peru. After intense negotiations, the parties involved have started to identify the points of consensus and drafted an agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gases. The COP20 has allowed stakeholders to define the national contributions that each country must present in beginning 2015, in order to set the groundwork for the conference in Paris next year where we hope to form the Paris Alliance which will sign the Paris Agreement in December 2015.

COPs provide a forum for all stakeholders to sit face to face with governmental bodies, the private sector and civil society to discuss issues related to climate change. High-emission countries tend to shy away from legally binding actions for mitigation through the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG), while low-carbon-emission countries (like Sri Lanka) feel less responsible for the current state of affairs and wish to prioritise their own economic development over climate change mitigation.

ségolène royal

French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Ségolène Royal at the COP20 in Lima

Why is climate change so important? What is meant by “climate change” and “global warming”? What are the foreseen consequences of this?

“Climate change” describes a natural phenomenon of long-term change of average temperatures and meteorological conditions on Earth. This is what originally enabled the development of life on Earth, without it, the temperature on Earth would be minus -18 °C! The problem is that in the recent past, mankind has generated such immense quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases that the Earth’s temperature is increasing much too fast.

Human activity (industrial production, energy consumption, transport) leads to an increase in emissions of “greenhouse gases”, in particular of carbon dioxide. These gases trap some of the heat that would otherwise be reflected back into space, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “the greenhouse effect”.

The consequences of the rapidly mounting temperatures could be tremendous and terrible. We have now started to fear what could happen in the future. For example, if we delve back into our ancient history: take the last Ice Age which took place 20 000 years ago; the average difference of temperatures –as compared to nowadays- was just of 8°C. Even with such a small difference in temperatures, the sea level was an incredible 120 meters lower than it is today! This definitely makes you think, “What will happen if global warming continues at this speed?” If we don’t change something fast, then the weather will be more erratic, rainfall will be unpredictable, ice caps and glaciers will melt, sea levels will rise quickly (even more at high tide), there will be more natural disasters, and islands, such as the Maldives will disappear, swallowed up by the ocean.

Is there scientific consensus about global warming? Do all experts and scientists believe in it?

Climate conditions have changed often and in an erratic manner over the last 400 000 years but the difference is that now we are absolutely certain that it is human production of greenhouse gases which is responsible for global warming. As expertise in the field of modelling is getting better, we can quantify the Earth’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases (through forests and oceans scattered around the globe). Nevertheless, a large part of these harmful gases still remains in the atmosphere causing the temperatures to rise inevitably.

Several reports have been released in the last few years by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They have allowed us to understand the link between human activity and rising temperatures. 1 person out of every 10 people on Earth is directly threatened by rising water levels!

Following the present trend, we are heading towards an increase of overall temperatures by between +3.2°C and +5.4°C by 2100. Let me remind you that over the last 130 years, the temperature has only increased by 0.85°C, so, more than 3°C by 2100 is very scary! At this rate, average sea levels could rise by up to 1 metre within the next 80 years, with huge effects on the lives of coastal populations.

France appears to be very implicated in the protection of the environment and issues related to Climate Change. How come?

Yes, it is because of the frightening consequences of CC that France is entirely engaged in ensuring that a binding, fair, global climate agreement is signed in Paris in 2015, to keep global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve this, GHG emissions must be reduced drastically and must be close to zero by 2100. What we hope from the COPs is that with strong will and united global political action to control carbon emissions, we can monitor the increase of temperatures and manage to keep it below 2°C. To achieve this, enormous efforts will have to be made by all stakeholders, big and small.

Even though France already has one of the lowest levels of per capita greenhouse gas emissions of all of the developed countries, our President, Mr François Hollande has declared that France would engage in real environmental diplomacy by fighting for the ambitious targets of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 and of 60% by 2040 in all international arenas. Along with its European partners, France will make every effort to tackle the challenge of climate change. France is in fact laying the groundwork for its own ecological and energy transition towards a future of low carbon consumption and emission as well as climate change resilience.

Many countries have tried to promote a system which could quantify greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes by imposing a financial penalty on those producing them, in order to reduce the overall emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. Has this system not worked? What should be the way forward?

Despite a growing number of mitigation policies, man-made carbon production hasn’t stopped growing. In fact, the pace of production has almost doubled in the past 15 years!

Although the world is now fully aware of whom the biggest producers of GHG are, the debate still persists around finding out who is responsible for the stock of GHG in the atmosphere: the current top GHG emitters or the past GHG producers (responsible for the accumulated stock of GHG). As of today, it is considered that China is responsible of 27% of global emissions, the United States of America for 14%, the European Union for 10% and India is responsible for 6%.

Other countries tend to think that they are not responsible for climate change, but one must anlook at emissions per capita to better grasp the issue: an average European citizen produces roughly 6.8 tonnes of CO2 per year, less than a Chinese citizen who produces approximately 7.2 tonnes/year, which is far less than someone from the United States, who generates around 16.4 tonnes per year. Poorer countries are generally low emitters; India for example only produces 1.9 tonnes a year.

Indeed, some are perhaps more to blame than others, but in fact no one in the world, no person and no country has the right to pollute. Thinking in terms of what you can “get away with” has to be wiped out of our minds. We cannot avoid climate change if we all feel entitled to produce a certain amount of GHG! This is exactly why the Kyoto Protocol failed! Today, the situation is dire and it most definitely will get worse if we don’t do anything about it.

What are the main sources of GHG? Where does Sri Lanka stand on these issues?

On a global scale, the main sources of GHG are: power generation from natural resources such as coal or fuel; then, the industrial sector; followed by transport (each vehicle produces CO2 and other toxic gases) and finally one which we often forget is agriculture, especially in countries where extensive farming is practiced. To this, we must add the ever-increasing deforestation. While emissions are increasing, the world’s forest reserves are depleting and the absorption of CO2 is therefore decreasing day by day.

Sri Lanka’s development of cheap coal-fired plants is a positive move but keep in mind that coal and oil are the main culprits behind global warming, and while Ceylon Electricity Board used to be a low emitter earlier on, pollution from power generation is increasing rapidly. The Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy is right in trying to increase forest coverage as rapidly as possible, but is that enough with private car sales booming?

In conclusion, is there any message you would like to address to Sri Lanka?

If I could give one piece of advice to Sri Lanka I would say, you have such a beautiful island, with such a magnificent variety of flora and fauna, breath-taking beaches and evergreen mountains; you must do all you can to protect the environment!

Sri Lanka must think of creating updated tools and indicators for measuring GHG emissions which establish a direct link with the increase of car sales and changing lifestyles. Sri Lanka has worked tirelessly to develop the country after decades of war; perhaps you should try to make climate change mitigation and adaptation a priority to protect all of this from the dangers at hand.

We cannot give up and think that climate change is inevitable. All of us need to stop placing blame on others and stop feeling entitled to produce more because of historical specificities. Many countries have polluted in the past, even more are polluting today, but hopefully, less will pollute tomorrow!

Solutions need to be looked into and put into action; the investment is worth it if it guarantees that we will all have a future! It is extremely encouraging that all the countries of the world are turning towards high-tech and service sectors. State-of-the-art-technology has helped us to develop adapted machinery and equipment allowing for: use of renewable energies (hydro, wind, solar energy) rather than coal/fuel-fired power plants; hybrid or electric vehicles and public transport rather than old combustion vehicles; reforestation to increase absorption of CO2; energy efficient buildings and sustainable urban development. I sincerely hope Sri Lanka will strive to be one of these adapted “green economies”! International organisations and development partners such as the World Bank, the Global Environment Fund and even private banks are all hoping to finance the transition towards green economies.

So let us all work together: every country should take mitigation measures and then implement carbon-emission-reduction-plans. Every citizen should think about what he could humbly do to avoid producing more greenhouse gases and let us see what the COP21 will lead to. Let us cross our fingers and hope that France will be the breeding ground for fruitful negotiations and an ambitious Paris Agreement!

Thank you.

H.E. Mr. Jean-Paul Monchau
Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and the Maldives