Laurence Tubiana: ‘EU-China climate agreement is conceivable’

Laurance Tubiana will lead negotiations for France in the Paris Climate Conference. [Ian Caldwell/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Climate change: The road to Paris.

Climate change specialist Laurence Tubiana is the negotiator representing France at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. She took the time to share her views on of the discussions between the world’s biggest CO2 emitters with EURACTIV France.

At the COP 20 in Lima, we saw negotiators with many contrasting positions. What is the priority today as we move towards an agreement in Paris at the end of the year?

The American and Anglo-Saxon media have been much more positive than the French media in their coverage of the Lima COP. We knew we were not going to obtain concrete commitments from all the countries, because that was not the aim of this conference. Questions remain over the key points of the agreement. Particularly over its legal nature: will it be binding or not? This question is still open. The nature of commitments and the differentiation between developed countries and developing countries is also problematic. Is it possible for all countries to make the same level of commitments, and have their progress judged against the same criteria? The question of financing must also be resolved.

But Lima demonstrated the good will of the participants, and resulted in a joint text. We also made progress on the “Lima Paris Action Agenda,” which will help mobilise the non-governmental participants. So I think the outcome of the Lima COP was positive, even if we still have lots of work to do.

China and the United States announced a bilateral agreement on climate questions in November. Do you see these bilateral negotiations as an asset or an obstacle for an international agreement?

This announcement was very positive, and very important for the negotiation process: the two largest emitters committing to reduce their emissions, it’s simply remarkable. It is important to understand that climate negotiations do not work like other international negotiations. In the end, all the CO2 emissions add together, whatever happens, so anything that can be done to limit them contributes to the same goal, there is no competition. Bilateral agreements are welcome; we could also conceive of one between Europe and China, for example. This way of negotiating brings concrete progress. Certain parts of the USA-China agreement were even included in the final text from Lima; they are part of the process.

The EU is negotiating on behalf of a bloc of countries with potentially divergent positions. Germany is pushing for a more ambitious agreement, and France wants above all to make sure the agreement gets signed. How do we reconcile these positions?

This is a well-oiled process in the EU. The negotiation will be led by the presidency of the European Council, which will be occupied by Luxembourg at the end of the year during the COP 21. Negotiations will also take place in meetings between EU Foreign Affairs ministers. Germany has always shown a great deal of ambition in climate issues, and such strong views are important, but I am not worried about reaching a consensus. Europeans have a lot of experience in this area. What is important is the 2030 objective, which was fixed last autumn, well in advance of the Paris conference, and welcomed by many of the participants in the climate negotiations.

At the recent Davos economic forum, and at others in the past, many leaders called for a price to be assigned to carbon. But is this anything more than an empty slogan?

The moment we abandon the idea of a global limit to CO2 emissions, the idea behind the Kyoto Protocol, and start asking each country to commit to its own emissions-reduction programme, we can stop imagining a global CO2 market with one fixed price for carbon. So it is true that the idea has been abandoned. But this is not to say that different carbon markets and tax systems cannot emerge all over the world, depending on the path each country follows. Some companies are even demanding that efforts be made to fix a price to carbon, so they can take it into account in their business plans.

What is the position of the OPEC countries (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in this latest cycle of negotiations?

The biggest change is that Saudi Arabia is prepared to get involved in the negotiations, because it is no longer possible for a country to deny human-induced climate change. Of course, the economies of the oil-producing countries rely mainly on selling fossil fuels. It would be best for the climate if these hydrocarbons remained underground. This means the oil-producers will have to modify their economies, and that will not happen quickly. The idea is gaining ground, however, and these countries are also investing in the energy transition. Saudi Arabia has a CO2 capture and storage system, for example. So the trend is very different compared to the last cycle of negotiations.

The decline of the price of oil to 50 dollars a barrel gives a negative signal to consumers. Is this a risk for a global agreement?

Lower oil prices could provide opportunities. The high energy bill contributed to the economic crisis in the West. It was a heavy constraint. Lower energy prices could provide financial manoeuvrability for greater investment in the energy transition, thanks to increased growth. So it is a good thing. Of course we could argue that lower oil prices will lead people to consume more of it. But I think people are increasingly aware of the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and are beginning to make their decisions accordingly.

We do not hear much from the climate sceptics. Have they disappeared?

It is becoming difficult to defend climate sceptic positions today. The attacks we may face will most likely be indirect; they will tackle the solutions we adopt. The sceptics will say our resources would be better spent in adapting to climate change than in trying to limit greenhouse gas emissions, for example. This essentially boils down to the same thing. But the real climate sceptics do not have much credibility.

Naomi Oreskes pointed out that the expert who refuted the link between human activity and climate disruption was the same scientist that dismantled the link between cigarettes and cancer for the tobacco industry several years ago… this is not taken seriously. In the United States, the Senate is still unconvinced. Al Gore told me that Senators have recently rejected a resolution specifying that global warming resulted from human activities. But the United States has a very unusual political system!

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