US envoy from France on Biden, the Paris agreement and allied confidence


Five years ago this past weekend, nearly 200 countries gathered outside of Paris to pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming. It was a remarkable joint commitment to address the already apparent threat to the planet. President Trump then became the only leader to walk away from the deal, in line with his rejection of multilateral efforts.
Today, France, the host country for the agreement’s consumption in 2015, and other countries are eager to welcome the United States again under the leadership of President Biden.

French Ambassador to the United States Philippe Etienne spoke to The Times about the future of the climate deal. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. With President-elect Biden having made it clear that he will bring the United States back to the Paris Agreement, how difficult is it to make up for lost time?

A. When President Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, our President [Emmanuel Macron] immediately said that we would do everything to keep the Paris Agreement, and the international community in the agreement, and we succeeded.

We have managed to keep the rest of the international community on board [as well as] many American actors outside of the federal government – cities, businesses, governors, civil society. With the leadership of the United States, with Europe and other partners, we will be able to raise the ambition of our goals. This is the most important thing.

Q. Some in the United States remain skeptical of the science of climate change, and the Trump administration, in fact, has embraced climate deniers. What does the new Biden administration need to do to rebuild trust?

A. I think there are already signals which are very important. Just think of John Kerry’s appointment as Presidential Climate Envoy in the new administration. John Kerry is not only incredibly, incredibly knowledgeable, he was one of the main negotiators of the Paris Climate Agreement. But he is also someone who has energy, who has always taken initiatives. He believes in it; I think he’s passionate about it.

It’s a personal point of view, but I also think that in the United States, like everywhere in the world, there is the younger generation. They expect us, their governments, to act. So I think we have no choice when you see weather events, catastrophic weather events, which multiply all the other challenges that we have. It is obvious that we must act.

So, of course, it’s a matter of trust. But I think the most solid reason for my belief that we are going to move on to tackling climate change is that we have no choice and that our people expect it from us.

Q. What about the US commitment to multilateralism?

A. It might surprise you, but the criticisms we have heard in the United States against this international system are sometimes justified, because [global] institutions must adapt. And that’s what we want to do, thanks to the return of the new administration to the multilateral system. For example, [Trump’s] the decision to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization has prevented us Europeans from working with the United States to reform the organization from within. It must be reformed. This is normal, because we are learning from pandemics. But each institution must be adapted.

It is already very important that the United States returns to all of these institutions and arrangements, and also starts working again with European allies and with other like-minded countries, especially democracies.

Q. You mentioned a new ambition. Are there ways you think the deal should be strengthened in the future?

A. By new ambition I mean something that is at the heart of the Paris Agreement, which is that we know that in order to achieve the target of a maximum 2% increase in temperature – even 1.5 degree [Celsius], we need to make these national commitments and use them regularly to increase countries’ goals.

The idea is to increase the level of our commitments in terms of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions from minus 40% to minus 55% [from 1990 levels] by 2030.

Q. When you look at this deal and where we are now, with the carbon emissions continuing to rise globally, and the temperatures that go with it, what would you say that actually came out of this deal? ?

A. Concretely, we have, for the first time, an agreement where the whole of the international community has decided, after, I don’t know, 20 years of attempts, to conclude with national commitments and on a method to gradually increase the engagements. We knew that would not immediately lower the level of emissions; That takes time. We have set a target, which is carbon neutrality by 2050, and intermediate milestones – for example, the decarbonization of electricity production. So I think that all this is the result of the Paris agreement on the climate, all these efforts, which are not yet sufficient but which are multiplying.

Q. You said you were proud to keep all the countries in the deal after the United States left. Was it difficult? Can you tell us a bit about how it went? Or were there real consequences of leaving the United States?

A. Well, it could have been different, you know, because once such a big country, the most important country in the world, leaves, you can have all kinds of groups of countries saying, “Why should- I stay?”

With the United Nations, we have launched a series of concrete collaborations, what we call the One Planet Summits. And, for example, we have created a group of sovereign wealth funds, including sovereign wealth funds from hydrocarbon producing countries, and we have initiated many collaborations in green finance, to move towards a decarbonized future.

So it took a lot of effort from many, many actors, not only to keep everyone on board, but also to gradually increase the instruments and also the financial benefits invested in climate change policies.

And I think these countries have understood that it is in their interests to also invest in sustainable development, including renewable energies and civilian nuclear power.

Q. So you are saying maybe the reverence of fossil fuels is starting to wane in countries?

A. Oh yes. There are less and less subsidies for the export of coal technologies while the development is done on renewable energies, energy efficiency. Everything takes on a new dimension. What is not yet sufficient is the behavior of financial players and financial institutions.

The entire institutional financial system must really come together to promote a common vision of green investment, serious green investment with serious criteria. The relationship between trade and climate is very important.

Q. Are there things you are monitoring to see if America is serious about tackling climate change? Future appointments? Future regulatory steps?

A. I have no doubt that the United States is serious, but of course you are right that it is not enough to just go back to the agreement. But being back in the deal, the United States will be a driver of success.


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