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Barbara Pompili: ‘Ambitious India by our side, we can drive commitments on climate’

2021 is a crucial year in the fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. Five years after the Paris Agreement, our collective efforts still fall short of our goals, but the momentum is picking up.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: February 3, 2021 3:32:03 am
French Minister of Ecological Transition Barbara Pompili

On her maiden visit to India, French Minister of Ecological Transition, BARBARA POMPILI, speaks to ESHA ROY about increasing investment in renewable energy and biodiversity preservation, and how India and France can be partners in the fight against climate change.

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On the occasion of your visit, the French and Indian governments have launched the India-France Year of the Environment, and India will be the second country for France to collaborate with on this initiative. What kind of initiatives will this collaboration entail and what do you plan to achieve with such an initiative?

2021 is a crucial year in the fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. Five years after the Paris Agreement, our collective efforts still fall short of our goals, but the momentum is picking up. The United States are back at the table. Many countries, starting with the Europeans, have committed to reaching carbon neutrality, which is essential to meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals. And this year’s key multilateral summits, such as the COP15 on biodiversity and the COP26 on climate, will provide opportunities to step up global action.

In this context, India is a major, pivotal country to achieve our collective ambitions. Not only because of its economic and demographic size, but also its capacity to lead other countries. Indeed, India will be a key ally in these international negotiations and that is why I have come on an official visit to launch with Minister Javadekar the India-France Year of the Environment. In this crucial year, we will work together every step of the way, intensifying our technical cooperation, political consultations and coordination ahead of these summits. I believe that with an ambitious India by our side, we can unlock coalitions and drive up global commitments on climate and biodiversity.

The second goal of my visit was to demonstrate how France can be India’s steadfast partner in meeting its ecological transition goals. We will further intensify investments, financing and technical assistance, particularly in renewable energy and under India’s Smart Cities Mission. In Surat, for instance, I visited innovative clean mobility and sustainable urban development projects that involve French companies as well as the French Development Agency (AFD) and the European Union. I am proud that on the occasion of my visit, we could finalize the agreement for AFD to provide 250 million euros of funding to the Surat metro rail project. Whether it is urban mobility, smart meters, water management, the blue economy or clean energy, our goal is to develop concrete projects with India that demonstrate how environment protection can be reconciled with economic and social development.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the increasing trend of zoonotic diseases. How big a role do you think conservation of biodiversity might play in the future?

While we do not have the full scientific picture of the Covid-19 pandemic yet, it has for sure raised awareness about the close links between environment protection and human health. In short, human, animal and environmental health are deeply intertwined. This issue was at the heart of the One Planet Summit organized by France on January 11, where we launched the PREZODE (PREventing ZOonotic Diseases Emergence) initiative to prevent the emergence of new pandemics from animal reservoirs. That is also why France champions the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, to ensure that at least 30 per cent of the land and ocean are protected by 2030. We believe this initiative could greatly benefit from India’s support.

In Kaziranga, I witnessed first-hand the results of our joint efforts to protect fragile ecosystems while providing better, more sustainable livelihoods for local populations. Thanks to this project supported since 2012 by France’s Development Agency, Kaziranga is now home to two-thirds of the world’s population of one-horned rhinoceros, 21,000 hectares of land have been reforested, more than 6,000 people have benefited from vocational training and local communities are involved in sustainable forest management and anti-poaching efforts. It is a remarkable success of Indo-French cooperation on ecosystem conservation, which can serve as a model elsewhere. That is why we have decided to share the lessons learned in Kaziranga with other natural parks in the Indo-Pacific region through a new partnership to be launched this year.

France has invested in a number of Renewable Energy projects in India…do you see your country investing in more such projects in India in the coming years?

France and French companies are positioned to be India’s number one partner for renewable energy. Today, French companies have a combined portfolio of 4.2 GW of commissioned solar and wind projects in India – 10 per cent of the total solar capacity in operation – and an additional 14.2 GW is under development. Last year alone, French companies invested more than 3 billion euros (27,000 crore rupees) in renewable energy projects in India. The French Development Agency is also financing more than 5,800 crore of renewable and energy efficiency projects in India and looking into supporting a 150 MW floating solar power plant project. And I am convinced that this is only the beginning. During my visit, Minister R K Singh and I decided to strengthen the cooperation between our ministries and signed an agreement for joint work not only on solar, wind and biomass but also hydrogen, which is a promising new field of collaboration between our two countries.

Do you think it possible for countries, especially developing countries, to successfully shift from coal thermal plants to wind and solar energy plants?

I am convinced that this is not only possible but also increasingly an economic opportunity and imperative for the energy sector. The price of renewable energy has decreased consistently in the past year and is increasingly competitive compared to fossil fuels. In France, we decided to shut down the last of our coal thermal plants by 2022. India is also leading the way with the impressive growth of renewable energy in the last five years, reaching more than 90 GW in 2020. I salute India’s commitment to reaching 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030.

To meet these goals, we need to pool our efforts at the global level and ensure developing countries have access to the technical assistance, capacity-building and financing they need to succeed in their energy transition, especially when it comes to harnessing the immense potential of solar power. That is the goal of the International Solar Alliance, which was launched by India and France in 2018. As Minister R K Singh and I announced during my visit, ISA membership is now open to all countries in the world: its universalization will help to accelerate solar power deployment and is a key step forward in view of COP26.

In many countries, issues like decarbonisation and preservation of biodiversity, are often seen to be in direct opposition to development and a growing economy. How do you think this gap can be bridged?

I believe this opposition increasingly belongs to the economic development models of the past. Today, there is much greater awareness of both the economic costs of damaging the environment and the jobs and growth opportunities of the ecological transition. The more than 600 French companies present in India employ 350 000 people, many of them in areas related to sustainability. We are going through challenging times, but they also offer unique opportunities to accelerate towards a more inclusive and sustainable growth model. Indeed, now is the time to invest in a green recovery that will help bridge the gap. That is the goal of France’s 100-billion-euro recovery plan, out of which 30 billion are earmarked for the ecological transition.

How important do you think it is to involve stakeholders such as environmentalists, non-profit organisations and ordinary citizens in policy making, especially environmental policy, and how can this be done?

I believe that involving civil society in environmental policymaking and implementation is a key condition to bring about the transformations we need. Throughout my visit, I have met with Indian think tanks, civil society organizations and visited environmental

NGOs that do impressive work, for instance on waste management and recycling. This dynamism and inventiveness is a real resource for India’s green transition as ideas and solutions that are devised locally can inspire public policy. In France, last year, the government provided a platform for 150 randomly selected citizens to work and debate during several months on ways for France to cut its carbon emissions. The results of this work have translated into a Bill that I will now be presenting before Parliament.

Your visit to India involves meeting a number of plastic recyclers and plants exploring alternatives to plastics. What has your experience been and what more would you like to see happen?

Plastic is a global scourge. The European Union and France have set a clear path to progressively reduce plastic use and I know that India has also made ambitious announcements in this regard. During my visit, I have gained a better understanding of the waste management situation and challenges in India and I have also witnessed the innovative solutions that are being developed here, for instance at IIT Guwahati. This is a major topic on which France and India can gain by cooperating with each other and set an example globally. With my Indian counterparts, we have therefore agreed to work on a joint Indo-French initiative for phasing out single-use plastic and turning to sustainable alternatives.

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