Skip to main content

Nicolas Hulot, Special Envoy of the French President for the Protection of the Planet, speaks to the Canadian Press at the Embassy of France in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The man tasked by France's President with building support for a global climate change treaty sees Canada as one of those countries unwilling to face up to the facts.

Nicolas Hulot, French President François Hollande's special envoy for the protection of the planet, sees the prospects of reaching an accord to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in negotiations in Paris next year as daunting.

But he is optimistic. The two biggest players, the United States and China, now have reasons to deal with the issue.

And, he believes, world leaders can no longer doubt the need for action.

Sooner or later, Mr. Hulot warned, countries will have to accept that they cannot escape the consequences of climate change. And that means Prime Minister Stephen Harper's assertion earlier this year – that nations will not act on climate if it would hurt their economy – is unrealistic.

"That means we have the choice. That the global economy could continue to prosper, without being affected by the consequences of climate change," Mr. Hulot said in an interview at France's embassy in Ottawa.

"No country will be spared from the consequences of climate change."

Mr. Hulot is no typical French official, or diplomat. He is an ecologist and former host of the popular French TV documentary series Ushuaia. In 2007, he forced all the presidential candidates to make an ecological pact. Now he's Mr. Hollande's envoy, travelling to build momentum for the Paris talks.

He does not criticize Canada harshly for failing to meet its commitments at the last major international climate talks, in Copenhagen in 2009. Others, including Europe, made small promises they did not keep.

But he does say Ottawa's justification for not acting – that it must wait for its major trading partners – is short-sighted, because Canada, too, will suffer from climate change. The United States, in announcing it will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from coal, its largest source, has started to act, he noted.

"The United States are ahead of Canada," he said. "You have a bit of catch-up to do."

Mr. Hulot admits the prospect of reaching a legally binding climate treaty in Paris next year seems unlikely. A failure could cause countries to give up on the idea, he fears. "If Paris fails, it will sound the bell, the end, of these multilateral processes. And I don't know what would replace them."

But he also thinks developments since Copenhagen offer hope, particularly the changes in the United States and China.

The costs of natural disasters are rising exponentially in the United States, he said. Businesses there are realizing energy efficiency means productivity. And China, forced to deal with pollution, is also taking on climate change, and has more interest in a treaty. In addition, Mr. Hulot said the costs of renewable energy are plummeting – so transition from fossil fuels to new sources only needs to be hastened. And, he said, there's no room for leaders to doubt the need to reduce emissions.

Now, he said, it's up to wealthy, industrialized countries in North America to put forward their own commitments for greenhouse-gas reductions before the Paris talks, as well as ways to fund climate-change initiatives in developing nations.

"I understand that from the point of view here in Ottawa there is an economy that relies principally on exploiting fossil fuels, conventional or unconventional. I can understand there are difficulties in apprehending climate change. Because it means little by little getting out of a carbon economy," Mr. Hulot said.

But he warned the consequences of climate change won't be avoidable.

Even oil-rich Gulf countries are diversifying their economies and developing green technology, he said, to prepare for a post-carbon world.

"Canada cannot remain isolated. ... They have the means to prepare, to diversify their energy model. They have the intelligence.It's not in the interests of Canada, even on an economic scale, to stick stubbornly with an economy principally based on the exploitation of [fossil fuels,]" he said.