World leaders on Monday outlined the "urgent threat" posed by climate change to the environment, global security and the "future of the plannet" as a U.N. conference aimed at forging consensus on how to avert the worst effects of warming got underway.
Heads of 147 state and government — including the leaders of the world worst polluters, such as the U.S. and China — arrived for the conference along with members of the private sector, labor groups, members of the scientific community, indigenous leaders, and environmental activists.
French President François Hollande opened the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COP21) summit Monday, saying that the “future of the planet, the future of life” was at stake.
“The challenge of an international meeting has never been so great,” he said.
The two weeks of COP21 negotiations are aimed at cementing a deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The U.N. says the world is on track for 3 degrees C warming by 2100 if no action is taken, and scientists warned this month that the Earth was already halfway to that critical threshold at 1 degree C warmer than pre–Industrial Revolution temperatures.
Speaking in Paris, Obama said that the U.S. accepted its responsibility to help limit global warming.
“As the leader of the world's largest economy and the second largest emitter … the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” Obama said.
Negotiators from each country met on Sunday, rather than Monday after high-level speeches, in order to get a head start on working out the deal. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said treaty aims to cap global warming at 2 C above preindustrial times or even 1.5 C.
Vulnerable, low-lying areas including the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, atoll nations in the Pacific Ocean, say they would be submerged if global temperatures were allowed to rise above 1.5 C.
Kiribati President Anote Tong said the very existence of his nation, which has an average elevation of less than three meters, is threatened by rising seas.
"To continue to survive as a nation we have to undertake substantial adaptations (to) ... build up the islands," Tong said in Paris on Monday, adding that those projects depended on funding.
Despite his hope for a strong outcome from COP21, Tong said his nation was reconciled to the possibility that "most of our people will have to relocate."
If global warming continues unchecked, scientists say extreme storms, flooding, drought, and rising seas could become more common. Major earth systems including coral reefs, ice-sheets, and the jet stream are already threatened by warming, and throwing them off-balance could trigger abrupt worldwide consequences.
Fabius said negotiators were meeting early because previous U.N. conferences have not met their goals before the official close and relying on a “last-night miracle” this time risked failure.
“The process cannot be chaotic. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to conclude the process in an orderly and respectful manner,” he said.
Hollande, along with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the treaty to be “binding.” It followed remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month saying that the text would not set “legally binding reduction targets.”
Some analysts say that a legally binding international treaty would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. The treaty agreed on in Paris would come into effect from the year 2020, after current commitments from the Kyoto Protocol run out.
As negotiators tried to whittle down the text, still more than 50 pages long, the most difficult issues emerged — including the legality of the final treaty as well as how rich nations should finance the cost of poor nations adapting to climate change impacts.
The UN’s Green Climate Fund aims to collect $100 billion to help developing nations reduce emissions and become resilient to climate change. The U.S. has pledged $3 billion to the fund, but that amount is still subject to Congress’ approval.
China, meanwhile, has created a fund called the South-South Cooperation Fund with similar goals. It has committed $3.1 billion to the fund. As the world’s biggest carbon burner, China has promised to lower emissions from its coal-powered economy.
Obama planned to meet one on one with world leaders during his two days in Paris, including with President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India — the biggest and third-largest polluters, respectively.
Obama, who met with Modi on the sidelines of the conference on Monday, said they agreed that climate change was an "urgent threat."
Modi said that economic development and environmental protection "go hand in hand" and that India's responsibilities on climate change "will be fully undertaken and fulfilled."
Meanwhile, members of the private sector made their own pledges.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said he and other investors were pledging $7bn for green energy research and development of clean energy.
The fund will be used to support a range of technologies, Gates said — "biofuels, carbon capture, high wind, fission, fusion — we're unbiased but it has to be clean and possible to scale up cheaply."
Ahead of the conference, environmental activists marched in Paris despite a ban on public demonstrations following attacks in the French capital two weeks ago that left 130 people dead. Police clashed with protesters firing tear gas and using pepper spray at the activists on Sunday.
In the face of the ban, thousands of shoes were placed in a central plaza in Paris urging a climate agreement. Organizers said the Vatican donated a pair bearing the name of Pope Francis.
In their comments Monday, Hollande and Obama linked the attack in which 130 people died — to the Paris attacks.
“What is at stake with this climate conference is peace,” the French president said, adding that with climate change will come conflicts. “The fight against terrorism and the fight against climate change are two major global challenges we must face.”
Obama described the talks as an “act of defiance” by the world community following the Paris attacks, adding that there could be no greater rejection of the ideology of those seeking to tear down the world than to mount efforts to save it from climate disaster.
Environmentalists said they hoped that incredible momentum seen in recent months should be transformed into a strong agreement for Paris and beyond.
“Clean energy is more affordable and more accessible than ever before. More than 160 countries are at the table already with commitments to slash emissions,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Monday.
“Record numbers of people around the world have taken to the streets calling for action — and their calls are being echoed in corporate boardrooms nationwide. Now it’s time to make it count and fight for an agreement that puts us on a path to tackle the worst effects of the climate crisis, protect the most vulnerable communities, and grow a just, equitable clean energy economy,” he said.
With wire services