COP21: the tipping point for global warming?

Hulot, French special envoy for the climate, says UN conference is already a success

The COP21 UN climate conference will begin on Monday amid uncertainty about the content of the final agreement, and nervousness over security in the aftermath of jihadist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.

But for Nicolas Hulot, President François Hollande's special envoy for the climate and one of the chief organisers, the gathering of 150 world leaders cannot be a failure. "This mobilisation is unprecedented in world history," Hulot told the Anglo-American Press Association. An environmental activist for more than 30 years, he says "The real question is will it be half a success, a full success or an absolute success."

Hulot’s yardsticks for measuring the success of the conference are: the strength of the commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees this century; finance to help the developing world adapt to climate change, and a move towards universal carbon pricing.

The World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva reported this week that the symbolic threshold of a 1 degree rise in temperatures since pre-industrial times will be crossed this year. If temperatures rise more than 2 degrees, Hulot says, it will be irreversible.


The commitments made in Paris will be insufficient to secure the 2-degree goal. "The important things is that we put in place procedures that put us on a trajectory to 2 degrees," Hulot says. That is why France insists on a review process demanding periodic and ever-greater commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Actions not words

Hulot’s second criterion for success is “a real moment of solidarity, not just words, with countries who are victims of climate change”. The necessity of helping the developing world adapt is much more present than in past conferences, he says. A promised $100 billion (€94 billion) annual fund for this purpose has now reached about $85 billion, but Hulot believes $100 billion should be the minimum. It should begin before the Paris accord enters into force in 2020, and continue afterwards.

Hulot pleads for "unorthodox" or "innovative" finance to fund adaptation, such as special drawing rights at the International Monetary Fund, a tax on financial transactions or redistribution of a global carbon tax.

Carbon pricing is “the rosetta stone of a low-carbon economy”, essential to provoking disinvestment in fossil fuels, Hulot says. It has started in much of the world, but in haphazard fashion. If COP21 does not make a commitment to a “carbon corridor” within which governments choose their carbon taxes, “the chances of tipping towards a low-carbon economy will be compromised”.

The draft accord that was drawn up by negotiators in Bonn still contains 1,200 sets of brackets comprised of multiple options, all of which will have to be resolved during the two-week conference. The 2-degree limit, periodic reviews, adaptation and carbon pricing are all in brackets.

The other most important issues, according to Hulot's Foundation for Man and Nature, are damages and loss for those countries most affected by climate change, and whether the agreement will be legally binding. Hollande says it must be; US president Barack Obama, who faces opposition by climate skeptics in Congress, says it cannot be.

Hulot regrets that there will be no provision to punish countries who fail to keep their commitments. “Some countries object to intrusions into national sovereignty,” he explains. He is counting on peer pressure to hold them to their word, because “if anyone cheats, the entire world will pay for it”.

There has been some criticism of the fact that big polluters such as airlines, gas, electricity and oil companies are co-sponsors of the conference. "Economic actors have understood the question is no longer if we are going to leave fossil energies behind, but when and how quickly," Hulot says.

He believes it’s impossible for big business to engage in “green-washing” – that is to say hide behind an environment-friendly image while continuing to pollute. “In a world where everything is visible, those who would attempt a travesty of reality, to paint themselves green when they’re not, would be denounced instantly.”

Hulot points out the “incoherence” of the world’s governments massively subsidising hydrocarbons while professing to want to diminish carbon emissions. “You see the difficulty of raising $100 billion for the developing world, while the developed world spends $450 billion on exemptions and tax breaks for fossil fuels,” he says.

“According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund, the cost of health and environmental consequences is more than $4,000 billion per year. So you’re spending $450 billion to amplify a phenomenon that costs you more than $4,000 billion.”

All outdoor events for the conference were cancelled in the wake of the November 13th attacks. Hulot’s foundation had planned to participate in a march on Sunday. Disappointed as he is, he says, “There were excellent reasons to cancel it . . . Everyone understands that it’s impossible to ensure security . . .The fact that the COP is being maintained is very courageous on the part of the French authorities.”

Those who planned to march in Paris have started “march4me” campaign on the internet, so that volunteers march on their behalf throughout the world. They are also distributing green hearts for citizens to stick on windshields or wear on their clothing.

Hulot is already thinking about what happens after COP21. “International law is not adapted to environmental crimes,” he says. His remedy? To integrate the concept of “ecocide”.

He would also like to see “the establishment of an international organisation to manage the world’s common property – food resources, natural resources, the equilibrium of the ecosystem.”

Next step

COP22 will take place a year from now in Morocco. Five-year reviews are likely. Are we facing a wearying and endless succession of conferences? “Things will go faster,” Hulot promises.

“Once we have changed scale, provoked carbon disinvestment and found financing, pension funds will understand they’re better-off placing assets in the low carbon economy. It can accelerate.

“Paris is undeniably the start,” Hulot concludes. “There will be a before and an after Paris. The only remaining question is: will it go fast enough?”