Top French and U.N. officials are upbeat about chances of reaching an ambitious climate change deal next month, as energy and environment ministers from roughly 70 countries wrapped up the last major set of climate talks in Paris Tuesday before December’s summit.
"We have taken an important step" with preliminary talks for COP 21, as the 21st U.N. summit is formally known, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at a news conference. He added that "nations have an obligation to succeed" at the summit, set for November 30-December 11 in Paris.
Among other advances, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have announced they are submitting climate plans, bringing to roughly 150 the number of nations that offered national blueprints on combating the effects of a rapidly warming planet.
Fabius said ministers made progress on five different areas, including agreeing to review CO2 reduction plans every five years.
"The good news is that nobody is waiting either for a Paris agreement or for 2020, when the Paris agreement will go into force, in order to act," United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres told reporters, adding it is "entirely possible" to reach a strong climate deal in Paris.
The three-day advance meeting took place amid alarming new evidence of mounting greenhouse gas emissions and their potential effects in the years to come.
On Monday, the World Meteorological Organization reported greenhouse gas levels reached another record high. And Britain’s weather office said the planet already has heated up by 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels – half the warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius that countries are working toward for the Paris summit. Beyond that threshold, scientists warn the effects of climate change could be catastrophic and irreversible.
A pair of separate reports also describe major cities under water and millions more people sucked into poverty as a warming planet triggers rising sea levels.
"We are coming to the last possibilities to turn the curve on emissions that continue to increase even today," Figueres said. "We have to get them to the point where they turn the corner and begin to decrease."
Later in the day, French President Francois Hollande met with counterparts from several African countries, which count among the most vulnerable to climate change and its effects.
"Africa is waiting for a good result from the COP 21; it’s a vital question for us," Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn said at a news conference during which African leaders called for support for the continent’s electrification and drew links between climate change and waves of migrants who already have fled the continent.
Climate financing for poorer nations remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks, although the gap is narrowing to reach a $100 billion yearly financing target to help them cut greenhouse gas emissions and deal with the fallout of global warming. A draft text of the Paris climate change treaty has been refined and sizably cut down in recent weeks.
Still, many brackets reportedly remain around the language, underscoring unresolved areas.
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Potential for Hollande
Beyond environmental concerns, reaching an ambitious climate change deal may also burnish the political fortunes of Hollande, who is struggling to reverse record low popularity ratings. Analysts predict his Socialist Party will take a beating during regional elections next month.
“The goal [of the climate conference] is not the elections,” a close Hollande aid told France’s Journal du Dimanche weekly. “But if the Paris conference is a success … people will say, 'He succeeds in things.’”
Still, chances of reaching a comprehensive deal remain uncertain. “Defeat is possible,” Hollande’s special envoy Nicolas Hulot said only last week.
Others point to shortfalls in France’s own climate plan. Outside the Paris center hosting Tuesday’s climate talks, a small group of protesters scattered fliers critical of government plans to build a new airport in western France.
"The politicians are offering a lot of false solutions," said one demonstrator, Cecile Marchand. "There’s a big gap between their COP 21 talk and their national policies."