COP21: Obama says Paris climate talks ‘could be turning point’

Hollande says he cannot separate fight with terrorism from fight against global warming

US president Barack Obama has told crucial climate change talks in Paris the negotiations represent an act of defiance after the attacks in the city two weeks ago in which 130 people were murdered.

Offering his condolences and pledging solidarity with the people of “this beautiful city” Mr Obama said: “We have come to Paris to show our resolve ... to protect our people, and to uphold the values that keep us strong and keep us free. We salute the people of Paris for insisting that this crucial conference will go on.”

Around 150 heads of state and government are attending the first day of the two-week talks, instructing their negotiating teams on coming to a deal. Each leader has been allotted three minutes for a short speech.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is due to address the conference on Monday afternoon. He said Ireland would sign up to "measurable and achievable targets".

Speaking ahead of the opening of the talks Mr Kenny said while Ireland secured a unanimous commitment by the European Council last year that its dependence on agriculture would be acknowledged in the calculation of EU emission targets, this was now being interpreted differently by the commission.

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, who will travel to the conference later in the week, on Monday said he was optimistic an agreement on how to reduce emissions would be reached among the counties in attendance.

Ireland would take its role "very seriously" but it wants "balance from an economic view as well", he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.

He said Ireland would put forward a package that takes account of the importance of agriculture, which accounts for about 29 per cent of emissions, to the country’s economy.

He also said Ireland will be making additional contributions to the United Nations Climate Fund, on top of the €2 million already pledged for 2016, in the years ahead.

The Paris talks are seen as a last chance for coordinated global action on climate change under the UN. If these talks fail to produce an agreement, the world will be left without an international commitment to prevent dangerous levels of global warming.

French President Francois Hollande told the conference that the world was at a "breaking point" in the fight against global warming. He said the fights against terrorism and global warming were linked. Mr Holland told the assembled leaders and delegates at the opening ceremony that France had put all of its energies into reaching an agreement in Paris. "Your presence here is a sign of hope," he told world leaders.

Mr Obama said that the attendance of world leaders was a “rejection of those who would tear down our world”, and drew parallels between the ravages of climate change and terrorism.

“[We want] a declaration that, for all the challenges we face, climate change will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other.”

He warned of some of the likely effects of climate change: “Abandoned cities; fields that no longer grow; political disruptions; conflicts; desperate peoples seeking sanctuary in nations not their own.”

The Paris conference could change that, he said: “This future is one that we have the power to change – right here, right now.”

“One of the enemies we will be fighting at this conference is cynicism – the presumption that we can’t do anything about climate change,” he added.

Poor nations must receive particular help, he urged. “We must reaffirm our commitment that the resources will be there [in financial assistance for the developing world]. We must make sure these resources [of climate finance] fall to countries that need help … and help vulnerable populations rebuild stronger after climate related disasters.”

A cause for hope, he said, was that a sense of urgency was growing among nations, as well as an increasing realisation that it is within our power to tackle climate change.

Mr Obama said the US was willing to embrace its responsibility – as the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter – to act, and called for unity among world leaders attending the talks. He urged a “common purpose [FOR A]world that is not driven by conflict but by cooperation – not by human suffering but human progress. Let’s get to work,” he concluded.

Speaking shortly after Obama, China’s president Xi Jinping said the eyes of the world were on Paris and that, “tackling climate change is a shared mission for all mankind.” He reiterated the country’s pledge to peak its emissions by 2030 and said: “we have confidence and resolve to fulfil our commitments”.

Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general, urged countries to come to a deal: "Leaders of the world, the future of our people and our planet is in your hands. We need a universal, meaningful and robust agreement."

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who is hosting the talks as COP president, said: “Future generations cannot hear us, but in a way they are looking at us now.”

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, also urged action. He stood alongside Prince Charles for the opening ceremony, as all of the leaders posed for a “family” photograph.

Leaders will spend most of the rest of the day in private meetings with one another, aimed at ironing out remaining differences and creating an atmosphere of diplomatic cooperation in which a deal can be brokered by the UN.

The Paris conference is seen as crucial, as its failure would in effect bring to an end to international efforts under the UN to control greenhouse gas emissions. Countries are aiming to agree on financial support to help poor nations to cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather. They also hope to set targets on limiting global emissions that would come into effect from 2020, when current commitments run out.

Later, British prime minister David Cameron is expected to set out his personal commitment to tackling climate change, pledging support for poorer countries that are likely to suffer most from extreme weather.

Mr Cameron will tell the conference he wants “a global deal for a global problem”, with a robust legal framework that would ensure the targets are met. He will call for any agreement to include a long-term goal on avoiding dangerous temperature rises.

“This will give certainty to businesses and the public across the world that governments are serious about decarbonising.”

But critics argue that since the election the government has systematically undermined the UK’s reputation for climate leadership.

Additional reporting agencies

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin

Dan Griffin is an Irish Times journalist