For hour after hour, in two hangar-size plenary halls at the climate-change conference centre in suburban Paris, the leaders of 150 countries made their pleas for a global accord to reduce planet-warming emissions. It was the biggest gathering of prime ministers, presidents, chancellors and kings under a single roof in a single day.
All of them insisted their own countries were taking action. Many of them predicted doom if carbon dioxide emissions were allowed to go unchecked, warming the planet to the point of environmental and social catastrophe.
But some leaders urged compromise, a sign that tensions between rich and poor countries, and between countries that want a legally binding accord and those that do not, could still derail the effort to find an all-inclusive replacement to the 1997 Kyoto Accord. The last attempt, in 2009 in Copenhagen, ended in disaster, and so could Paris if the differences are not overcome and the fossil-fuel era endures.
Still, optimism for a workable accord was strong on the opening day of the two-week negotiating marathon, which came with a flurry of clean-energy funding announcements. Even traditionally cynical environmental groups expressed high hopes for a deal. "There was good and bad to be heard on the podium, but on balance there is a sense of great potential here in Paris," said Martin Kaiser, Greenpeace's head of international climate politics.
François Hollande, President of host country France, used a grim scenario to kick off the leaders' speeches, which began in the early afternoon and went through the evening as almost all leaders greatly exceeded their three-minute speaking slots. "Climate change will bring conflict … risk of famine, mass rural exodus, conflicts over access to that increasingly rare resource, water," he said after welcoming the leaders to the conference, where all the countries will be asked to approve a plan to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees over their preindustrial level.
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The starkest warnings came from some of the small, low-lying countries that are threatened by rising seas as ice caps and glaciers melt. "Our survival as a nation depends on the decisions we take at this conference," Enele Sosene Sopoaga, Prime Minister of the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, said. "If we save Tuvalu, we surely save the world."
Speaking for 14 minutes, U.S. President Barack Obama combined a warning with a message of hope. He said the clock was running into overtime on the climate file – "When it comes to climate change, the hour is almost upon us" – but noted the clean-energy technology now exists to grow economies without growing emissions.
Even as Mr. Hollande, Mr. Obama and other leaders of the industrialized world urged countries to design low-carbon economies, it became apparent the negotiations will be fraught with difficulties because many countries have different agendas. Mr. Hollande said any accord "needs to be universal, differentiated and binding."
But a few big industrialized economies – including the United States, the second-largest producer of planet-warming carbon dioxide after China – have stated they will not endorse a legally binding agreement. American negotiators fear the legislatures of some countries, including their own, would not approve a legal accord. In an interview just before the start of the Paris conference, chief U.S. negotiator Todd Stern said he was convinced that "legally binding targets would have many countries unable to participate."
Some leaders insist on a legally binding accord, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron, though the refusal of the United States to endorse such a commitment almost certainly means the idea is dead. Some countries are pushing for a compromise that would see five-year reviews of national emissions-cutting plans.
Compliance and transparency are other hurdles. Unless countries allow independent monitoring of emissions, it will be hard to determine whether any pledges made in Paris will truly be kept. China, on sovereignty grounds, has resisted independent monitoring even if it is generally agreed that its statistics on coal consumption and other dirty fuels have become more reliable.
The leaders of some of the biggest economies in the developing world, including India and China, have also made it clear that tackling climate change must not stop a country's ability to build its economy. "It is imperative to respect differences between countries," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his speech. "Countries should be allowed to pick their own solutions."
The Paris climate change conference kicked off earlier Monday morning with pledges from Bill Gates, George Soros and other billionaires to send a flood of new money into clean energy investments as the governments of 20 countries, including Canada, said they would launch a parallel plan.
While the technology and investment billionaires put no dollar figure on the amounts they would devote to their initiative, the governments were more specific, pledging to double collective research and development spending on clean energy to $10-billion (U.S.) over five years.
With a report from Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa