China has "unique opportunity" to lead on climate change - Foreign Minister

Climate – Speech by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, at Fudan University

Shanghai, 17 May 2014

“We have 500 days to prevent a climate disaster”

Ladies and gentlemen, dear students,

This year we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and the People’s Republic of China. In this context, I’m very happy to be with you today for the inaugural conference of the French studies centre at Fudan University.

For this first conference, I could have talked to you about the cultural, human or economic ties uniting China and France. I’ve chosen another subject. Our two civilizations share a desire to control and build their future. And today, the biggest challenge for humanity’s future is climate disruption.

We have 500 days to prevent a climate disaster. This is a priority for both French diplomacy and the Chinese authorities. In fact it’s a matter for all of us, because the future of humanity depends on the response we provide, or don’t provide, faced with the risk of climate chaos.


It’s no accident that I’ve chosen to speak about this subject in Shanghai. Nothing seems capable of slowing down the expansion of this global city, which is ranked among the most attractive on the planet. Likewise, nothing seems capable of halting the emergence – or rather, the re-emergence, because it’s a return to a previous situation – of China, which, according to some assessments, has this year become the world’s leading economy.

However, Shanghai – like the rest of China and sometimes even more so – is facing major environmental challenges. The first is clear: you can feel it in your everyday lives. It’s pollution: water, soil and air pollution. The phenomenon isn’t peculiar to China: one remembers the famous London smog during the Industrial Revolution. But the scale of the problem matches an industrial development of unprecedented speed. The climate threat is also looming. As China’s second national report on the climate showed, Shanghai is vulnerable to the consequences of climate disruption. The rise in sea levels is threatening its coastline and heralds, unless we act, tragic consequences for certain densely-populated areas.

These two crises are two sides of the same problem: pollution and climate disruption are both the results of poorly-controlled development, and in both cases the solution lies in adopting a mode of sustainable development which is more respecful of the ecological balance.

Climate change is no longer an abstract notion or a matter for our distant descendants. It’s a reality that concerns us today. And it’s you, the young generation, who will have to suffer this phenomenon unless robust action is taken.

Its consequences are apparent every day – be they the melting of the glaciers and polar ice caps, the rising water levels, the acidification of the oceans, desertification, the consequences on agriculture in many countries or the increasingly extreme nature of climate phenomena.

Ultimately, unless we act, a disrupted, out-of-control climate will threaten the means of subsistence, the development and the existence of a large proportion of humanity. In the face of such consequences, the term climate “change” doesn’t reflect the gravity of the dangers. That’s why I talk about climate disruption or climate disaster, which clearly expresses what is at stake: the human species’ ability to develop, feed itself, live decently and control its destiny. In short, everything the Chinese people have fought for successfully over the past decades.


It’s not too late to act. The IPCC’s latest report gives rise to concern in this regard, but also determination.

Concern because the report reminds us that, at the current rate of growth in greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature could increase not by 2-3ºC as hitherto mentioned but by nearly 5ºC by 2100.

Determination because the scientists tell us it’s still possible to keep to the target the international community has set itself, of an increase below 2ºC.

But to that end, we must embark without delay on the decarbonization of our economies. In the words of Dr Pachauri, the Indian scientist who chairs the IPCC, “we have five minutes before midnight” for the climate. We must make good use of those five minutes we have left. We can’t afford to delay action.

So what must we do?

Action at national level is essential – I’ll come back to this in relation to China and France – but we must also strengthen international cooperation. For the past 20 years we’ve been looking for the best way to act. Since 1992, the groundwork has been laid, notably in Kyoto.

We must go further and faster. This is the challenge of the climate conference (COP21) that France will be hosting in Paris in December 2015. A new global agreement on the climate must be adopted there, so that it can come into force in 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol no longer applies. The 2015 Paris climate conference will have to be an event not for trying but for deciding. A few principles will guide us in building this necessary agreement:

- Ambition. The agreement will have to set greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets enabling us to put the planet back onto a path compatible with the 2ºC limit.

- Fair participation. The developed countries will have to remain in the vanguard, but all countries will have to take part according to their respective capabilities and their international responsibilities. That’s the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities.

- Trust. In order to be effective, the agreement will have to include rules and mechanisms that will ensure transparency and trust between those involved.

- Cooperation. The agreement will have to offer all countries solutions and strengthen international cooperation, particularly with the least advanced countries. It will have to address all countries’ development needs and provide them with the means to adapt to the effects of the disruption we can no longer avoid.

- Flexibility. The agreement will have to be flexible in order to adapt over time. We’re not aiming for an agreement that is perfect on paper but outdated as soon as it is signed. It will provide a framework that will be built on, strengthened as the years go by.

Are these goals realistic? Some people doubt it and recall the difficulty, indeed impossibility, of reaching an agreement at recent international conferences. However, it seems to me that things have changed since Copenhagen and a window of opportunity is opening up, with an increased commitment by most of the major players:

In the United States, after a wait-and-see policy lasting many years, President Obama has started taking strong measures to develop renewable energy, improve vehicle efficiency and reduce the most polluting coal-fired power stations’ emissions. The report published a few days ago on the impact of climate disruption in the United States should bolster this determination to act.

In Latin America, Brazil offers an outstanding example in the fight against deforestation. With China’s help, Ecuador is very rapidly developing its hydroelectic potential and will soon be producing 80% of its electricity from renewable resources. Mexico is committing itself equally strongly to the success of the 2015 Paris climate conference.

The African countries, led by Ethiopia and South Africa, have committed themselves to developing renewable energy in order to reduce their emissions and increase their energy independence.

In Asia, China is taking strong measures – I’ll come back to this in greater detail. We’re also seeing commitments by countries like Indonesia and [South] Korea. And Japan – forced to revise its short-term commitments following the Fukushima disaster, which momentarily deprived it of nuclear energy – has assured us of its desire to set ambitious medium-term emissions reduction targets.

We have 500 days left to make use of these positive developments and create a dynamic of success, because the Paris climate conference will be held in December 2015. This doesn’t seem long, given the scale of the task. It’s enough for a real burst of action. On the road to Paris, there are several stages that will enable us to make progress. The first will be the summit organized by the United Nations Secretary-General in New York in September 2014. Then there will be the COP20, to be held in Lima in December 2014. Under the auspices of the Peruvian presidency, with which we’re working closely, the foundations will be sketched out for the future agreement, which, I point out, must be adopted by consensus among all the countries of the world. Before the end of 2014, we’ll also have to have provided financing for the Green Climate Fund, responsible for providing financial support to those countries which need it. The beginning of 2015 will be a watershed moment. Those countries which haven’t yet done so will set out their planned contributions to the 2015 agreement, in particular their emissions reduction targets. The European Union, with its 28 member states, is preparing for this and will make its own target for 2030 known in the autumn of 2014.


Ladies and gentlemen, dear students,

One country will be decisive in achieving success at the Paris conference: China.

China actually has an important responsibility, given its size and its growth trajectory. It’s the world’s main emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting alone for a quarter of global emissions. It’s also one of the countries which will or may have the most to suffer from the scourge. The sometimes cataclysmic effects of climate incidents in China’s history are well known, and historians have shown, for example, the decisive impact of droughts and cold spells during the “Little Ice Age” on the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the middle of the 17th century. The talk today is of climate change on a much larger scale than the historical precedents. Finally, China, through the example it sets for emerging and developing countries, has a strong leadership capability.

China is fully aware of its role. President Xi Jinping would like to start building an “ecological civilization”. Premier Li Keqiang has “declared war” on pollution. Measures have been taken, notably major energy efficiency and renewable energy programmes. In the space of a few years, your country has become the leading investor and the leading global market in renewable energy. It’s also diversifying its energy mix by making use of nuclear energy, which has the advantage of stability and of not emitting greenhouse gases. A target of reducing carbon intensity by 17% by 2020 – i.e. by 40% to 45% compared to 2005 – has been announced. These measures have already led to a reduction in the Chinese economy’s carbon and energy intensity.

For its part, France has embarked on a large-scale environmental transition. It is today among the industrial economies with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, both per inhabitant and per unit of GDP. In order to continue along this path, we’ve set ourselves the target of quartering our emissions by 2050. Our goal is to become Europe’s leading environmental power.

What can be done to move further forward together? The key way involves trying to turn constraints into opportunities. During one of my many visits to your country, it was explained to me that you can use two ideograms to write the word “crisis”: one signifies “danger” (wei), the other, “opportunity” (ji). This is the approach we have to adopt faced with the climate crisis.

Too often the fight against climate change is perceived solely as a constraint – a constraint on economic growth, on energy policy, on sovereignty. If that approach persists, states and peoples risk clinging to a position of “yes, but”, even if they are fully aware of the climate challenge: yes, something must be done, but no, it’s not for us to do it. By highlighting the significant opportunities afforded by reactions to the climate crisis, we can and must push for action. What are these opportunities, for China in particular? There are four.

A political opportunity. Your country is emerging rapidly and on a vast scale, at times raising concerns in the rest of the world. This is one of the reasons for some of the criticism levelled at China a few years ago during the Copenhagen conference. I know that this criticism seemed unfair to you. At any rate, it’s out of date. China today has a unique opportunity to lead the world on this emblematic issue by announcing ambitious and necessary post-2020 commitments before the Paris conference, for example at the UN summit in September 2014. These goals will translate onto a multilateral level the ambitious strategy the Chinese government decided of its own free will. They will have a knock-on effect on the other key players, especially the United States and the major emerging countries. China’s image will strongly benefit from such a commitment.

An economic opportunity. By moving towards so-called “low-carbon” economies and societies, we’re building tomorrow’s prosperity, jobs and well being. Just as fossil fuels yesterday enabled our economies to develop, tomorrow it’s green technology which will ensure a new cycle of growth and development. As the first to exploit natural gas and oil before even the Christian era, China is once again in a position to put itself at the leading edge of innovation by making the switch to the green economy and renewable energy. Several tens of millions of Chinese people already work in areas to do with environmental protection and energy saving, and there is a huge number of potential jobs.

An opportunity as regards energy security. Energy efficiency – better use of energy by industry, buildings and vehicles – is one of the best levers for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also an excellent way of reducing the country’s and individuals’ energy bills. As the International Energy Agency puts it, unused energy is the world’s best fuel. Renewable energy ensures energy independence, which strengthens economic sovereignty.

Finally, an opportunity as regards public health. Resolute action to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the long term will have benefits in the short term on air quality and thus public health.

So overcoming our carbon dioxide dependency will be beneficial on all fronts. There are already solutions and our engineers are coming up with new ones every day. They just need to be developed.

* *

Ladies and gentlemen,

During President Xi Jinping’s very successful state visit to France in March 2014, our two presidents decided to put climate and the environment at the heart of the Franco-Chinese partnership. At the practical level, we must act together in several areas:

- to prepare together the Paris conference and rally the international community around ambitious goals. It’s with this in mind that I’ll be meeting your premier and the Chinese [climate] negotiator, Mr Xie Zhenhua, on Monday. We’ve already set up a high-level Franco-Chinese group of experts.

- to strengthen our partnership as regards carbon-free energy, in the nuclear and renewable energy sectors. Other projects will have to be initiated, along the lines of the French Development Agency’s financing of the first wind farm in Yunnan Province, making it possible to avoid annually emitting around 50,000 tonnes of CO2.

- to work on concrete low-carbon city projects. France’s successes when it comes to improving industrial processes and to reinforced building insulation match Chinese needs. In Wuhan our two countries are planning to build a sustainable city, and I’m delighted that President Xi’s visit to France allowed us to sign an agreement to move this project forward. Likewise, the Shenyang eco-district project is progressing. We also helped finance an integrated transport plan for the Guiyang municipality which takes on board environmental and energy aspects.

- Work on innovative systems such as carbon markets. Shanghai launched one in November, the country’s second. This carbon market will ultimately be an essential instrument for your energy transition. The implementation of a Europe-wide carbon market gives us experience in the subject which could be useful to you.

To conclude, I’d like to address, more specifically, all students, all young people. You have a major role to play. You belong to a generation that could be very severely affected by the climate disaster. But the transition towards low-carbon economies could also provide you with unprecedented opportunities. We’re living through years that are crucial for choosing between these two paths. It’s up to us to choose which one is in line with the founding principle of Chinese civilization, “harmony among heaven, earth and man”.

“In 2030, what world do I want to live in? And in 2050?” The answer you each give to this question, through your career and life choices and your initiatives, will have a more widespread impact than you suspect, because in this way – by playing an active role for the climate and against pollution – you will, as the leader of a Chinese metropolis put it to me recently, “find your blue sky again” and enable your children, as the prince of Chinese poets, Li Bai, wrote more than a millennium ago, to reach out and “pluck the stars”.

These, in short, are the challenges of the 2015 Paris climate conference. It’s a conference that concerns us all. We have 500 days. Our common future is at stake. It’s up to us, China and France together, to make it a success.

Published on 10/09/2014

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