Ségolène Royal: Pushing a broad battle against climate change

French environment minister optimistic for agreement at COP 21, writes Lara Marlowe

Twenty-three years after she represented France at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Ségolène Royal is again France's environment minister.

Rio established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which 20 Conferences of the Parties (COPs) have since been held. Royal will play an important role at COP 21, in Paris, from November 30th until December 11th.

Although Royal has been frustrated by the agonisingly slow negotiations, she also measures the distance travelled since Rio.

“Twenty-three years ago, there was a debate about whether it was true,” Royal said in an interview. “No one any longer contests climate change, because everyone feels the effects. Today, we have solutions to act efficiently and collectively for the planet.”


On August 17th, France enacted the Law on Energy Transition for Green Growth, which Royal shepherded through 150 hours of debate and some 5,000 proposed amendments.

‘Nation of environmental excellence’

She says the law “makes France the nation of environmental excellence” because “France is the first country to have translated into law its commitments in COP 21”. The law sets the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent by 2030, and of increasing the proportion of renewable energies to 32 per cent in 2030.

The French believe, often naively, that legislation makes dreams come true. The energy law is based on goals defined by the EU for COP 21, but also sets specifically French targets such as reducing reliance on nuclear energy from 75 per cent to 50 per cent. It foresees an ambitious rise in the carbon tax on fossil fuel consumption, from €14.50 per tonne at present to €56 in 2020.

The goal of concluding an agreement to limit the rise in the Earth’s temperature to 2 degrees Celsius has been entrusted to mid-level diplomats meeting regularly in Bonn.

Each session brings together 2,000 delegates and observers. Royal severely criticised the process last June, when she told Le Monde that “UN negotiations are totally inadequate in addressing the urgency of climate change.”

Royal wanted heads of state and government to seize responsibility for negotiations. “Since then, a lot of people have come to the same conclusion, including the secretary general of the UN,” Royal notes with satisfaction.

Ban Ki-moon told Paris Match, “I share (Royal’s) concern. Even I think the negotiators talk too much, that the discussions take too much time… I tell the world’s political leaders: Give clear orders to your negotiators… Stop haggling over technical details.”

Changed strategy

Since Royal's broadside on the Bonn process, President Francois Hollande has changed strategy, making it clear he will put maximum pressure on world leaders at the UN General Assembly to secure a "pre-accord" before the Paris conference.

Royal believes the new “political impetus”coming from Ban and the leaders of China and the US, the world’s two greatest polluters, will lead to agreement.

Hollande said on September 7th that COP 21 could fail over financing for the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to provide €100 billion annually to endow the developing world with the technology it needs to make the energy transition.

“Anyone who thought the path to COP 21 would be paved with a signed agreement, an immediate reversal of climate change and laurel wreaths for us is going to be disappointed,” Hollande warned.

“The declarations (regarding commitments to cut greenhouse emissions) are sometimes spectacular, but they’re not always accompanied by cash,” Hollande continued. “It all hangs by the financing. That’s the key… If there’s not a firm commitment to financing, there will be no accord, because the countries of the south will reject it.”

In a new twist, the governments of countries who have suffered from climate change are demanding “loss and damage” compensation for the prejudice already sustained.

Rivalry between Royal and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius has complicated the organisation of COP 21. The bad blood between them goes back at least to 2006, when both were candidates in the socialist presidential primary.

Royal was still with Francois Hollande at the time. “But who will look after the children?” Fabius allegedly quipped when Royal announced her candidacy. In the event, she lost the 2007 presidential race and separated from Hollande the same year.

Division of labour

Asked what is the division of labour between herself and Fabius, Royal said, “Laurent Fabius will preside over the COP and manage the negotiations. I will show how France has undertaken the march towards a decarbonised economy. I will continue to mobilise civil society, business and local government, as well as my European partners. I will head the French delegation at COP 21.”

Royal has become the de facto envoy to and advocate for Africa in climate change negotiations. While the rest of the government was on summer holiday, she spent two weeks in August visiting Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Ghana. "Laurent Fabius doesn't like trips where one spends a lot of time meeting people," she told Le Monde.

“Africa is the most important continent for the climate change conference in Paris,” Royal told African leaders in Libreville, Gabon, on August 28th. “With less than 5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, Africa is not responsible for global warming.”

Royal promised that France will ensure that half the credits in the Green Climate Fund go to Africa. She cites the example of Namibia, whose wind and solar resources would make it self-sufficient, if only it received the necessary technology.

Royal saw evidence of climate change on her African journey. "A large proportion of beaches have disappeared in Senegal over the past five years," she says. "In Zambia, where 80 per cent of electricity comes from hydro-electric dams, the water level has gone down so far that there are power cuts."

Royal is more optimistic than other French officials about the chances of COP 21. She believes the long-term effect will be to reduce poverty and rehabilitate the notion of progress.

Inequality will diminish, she says. “Since the hot countries have the greatest potential in solar energy, if they benefit from technology transfer, they’ll catch up with the industrialised countries who had to use fossil fuels.”