François Gemenne: 'We need more open borders ahead of the climate crisis'

Francois Gemenne, Université de Paris

François Gemenne is a specialist of environmental geopolitics and migration dynamics, a senior research associate at the University of Liège, and co-director of the Observatory on Defence and Climate of the French Ministry of Defence. A lead author for the IPCC (Working Group II) involved in a large number of international research projects, he lectures at Sciences Po in Paris and the Free University of Brussels.

Just as the Climate Ambition Summit is about to take place on 12 December, during which countries are supposed to submit more ambitious national contributions to stabilise the climate by 2050, Gemenne answers our questions on the radical transformation of our societies still needed, how to accelerate and why the notion of borders will be shaken by the climate emergency.

Geneva Solutions: As a lead author of the IPCC report, with a focus on the human impacts of climate change, how do you analyse the gap between the political commitments made, the actual results achieved and the critical risks this brings for humanity?

François Gemenne: There is indeed a huge discrepancy today between the formal objective of the Paris agreement, which is two degrees and even one and a half degrees if possible, and the sum of the commitments made by the different states. In fact, for those who look at the evolution of emissions, the Paris agreement has not yet managed to inflect the curve of our emissions.

The only thing that has really succeeded in inflecting the curve of our emissions has been the health crisis, which this year puts us on a path compatible with the objectives of the Paris agreement. And the paradox is that this is a trajectory that we are undergoing as a result of the measures imposed by the health crisis, and not a trajectory that we have chosen.

So the drop in coronavirus[-related] emissions underscores the inadequacy of our climate policies. On one hand, commitments made at the time of the Paris agreement are not sufficient and therefore have to be revised upwards - this is the ambition of COP26 next year. On the other hand, the commitments themselves are not being respected for the moment, a bit like good resolutions made on New Year's eve.

Five years later, the numbers don’t match. And if we follow the curve that we were following until 2019, we are heading for a temperature increase of around four degrees by the end of the century, which means that certain regions of the world will literally become uninhabitable.

It remains quite possible to get back on the right track, and somehow we are there now because of the coronavirus crisis. The big question is how are we going to stay on this trajectory without jeopardising economic activity and without confining half of the world's population.

The whole issue is how to install - in the long term - measures that we can keep over time.

In a world where the demand for energy is growing, and where renewable energies do not even yet cover the increase in demand from year to year, what can we expect over the next 20 years? Are the targets of 1.5 and 2 C only a symbolic political reference or do they have a chance to be achieved?

Even if renewables are growing at a sustained rate for the moment, this rate is not sufficient with the continuous growth of energy demand. But things can go very fast. We saw during the coronavirus crisis that the fossil fuel values on the market had fallen and that the values of renewable energies were growing enormously. They have a very important potential on the markets in terms of price, as they are becoming more and more profitable and less and less expensive. And in terms of energy generation capacity, especially for solar energy.

With regards to the Paris agreement targets, I think we should see these objectives as moral guidelines, in the same way we see human rights. We know that human rights are unfortunately violated every day in almost every country in the world. Despite that, we do not renounce human rights, they are a political ideal to reach, a kind of beacon indicating the direction. We must look at the objectives of the Paris agreement in the same way, as objectives that provide meaning to history: all the actions we take that would lead us to exceed these objectives must be considered as contrary to the direction of history.

That being said, can we realistically achieve these targets? I believe that we, unfortunately, have to mourn the objective of 1.5 degrees: we will reach it for certain in about fifteen years between 2035 and 2040.

On the other hand, the objective of two degrees is still attainable, but it implies that we continue in 2021 along the curve of emissions that was inflexed by the coronavirus crisis, which means a reduction of 5 to 7 per cent each year of global greenhouse gas emissions. We have to move towards greater energy sobriety, which is what is lacking at the moment, especially in the transport and housing sectors.

To stabilise the climate, a structural transformation and a shift in the actions of all actors in society are necessary - including universities. What conditions are needed to trigger such an acceleration?

We are still extremely far from it. I think that the mistake we made, as researchers, is how we communicated about climate change. The first mistake was to place too much emphasis on distant horizons - decarbonising by 2050, limiting temperatures at + 2 degrees in 2100 - forgetting to map out the path towards that horizon.

2050 and 2100 are time horizons that sometimes go far beyond an individual human lifespan and certainly beyond the span of a political career. We need to reorient communication to what we can do here, immediately, to initiate transformations. An image I like is the following. If I tell you I have to lose ten kilos by 2030, I'm not going to do anything before 2029. I will wait until the last moment to say ‘oops’ I have to lose ten kilos next year.

To tip society, we need to reconcile what we can do as consumers with what we need to do as citizens. Many people now have an idea of what to do to reduce their individual carbon footprint. But we still often feel that the collective choices that actually decide the bulk of our carbon footprint are over our heads. People say: that's a decision for governments or the multinationals, what can I do about it, I don't have a voice in it. The crisis of representative democracy, the sense that people feel they no longer have any control over collective choices, is an essential element that we need to address if we are going to solve the problem of climate change. People are ready to do their part, but they are not sufficiently aware of what to do together through their collective choices.

And here, of course, universities have a role to play in the ripple effect of society, to show what the levers are for decarbonating the economy, not only through our individual consumer choices but above all through our collective choices. We need to move towards other levels of collective action, through workplaces, through local authorities, places where people have the impression that they can act together and not just each on their own. From there we will be able to give people back a form of political power over governments but also over multinationals. These intermediate levels of collective action are very important.

You are a specialist in international migration. At times when many States now implement repressive policies and tend to reinforce borders, what solutions do you recommend to "normalize" the migration issue as climate pressure increases?

I am very worried about the narrative that is present in the public debate at the moment, which would see migration due to climate change as a kind of new migratory wave that would send millions of asylum seekers knocking on Europe's doors. I am very much afraid that raising the spectre of a new migration crisis in the making is likely to reinforce the current pattern of border closures and tension on migration issues, with the feeling among many people, many governments, that the best way to guard against climate disruption is to shut borders tighter.

We have to be very careful with this discourse, which is often based on good intentions, especially coming from climate activists. The risk is to reinforce a deeply xenophobic discourse that plays on the fear of migration in the hope that it will lead governments and populations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

How to move forward? In relation to migration in general, I think we must absolutely move out of this paradigm of immobility, i.e. to consider that in an ideal world, people would stay at home and that migration would not exist.

If we consider migration as a kind of political anomaly, we will always be in a logic of resistance and therefore in a logic where we will try to reduce or control this migration. Some propose to allocate development funds so that people do not leave these areas. Others propose to erect walls, barbed wire so that people don't come to us. But overall, all remain stuck in the same paradigm of immobility that leads to constantly resist migration.

And unfortunately, wanting to prevent migration from happening is like wanting to prevent night from succeeding day, it is a political enterprise that will not succeed. We need the courage to recognise that migration is a structural transformation and that the best we can do about it is to try to organise it so that it happens in the best interests of the migrants themselves, the host countries, the countries of origin and the countries of transit.

But as long as we are in a logic of resistance to migration, it will not work and will be doomed to failure. We will move towards an increasingly repressive logic and create dramas and political crises.

What does organising migrations in the best possible way look like?

First of all, I think that it requires, speaking of the European situation, to create more legal access routes to the continent for different types of migration. Today, asylum has become almost a means of immigration control and regulation, that is to say, it has been completely diverted from its primary function of humanitarian protection. We focus only on asylum issues and forget about immigration policy issues.

Another aspect is to look more into internal migrations. Today internal migration is dealt with as a completely separate subject from international migration, whereas international migration is often a continuation of internal migration. With nobody interested in it, it allows smugglers to spot customers and to prosper.

More globally, we should move in the future towards more open borders, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the most pragmatic and rational way to meet the great challenges of migration in the 21st century.

In a few decades time, will the very notion of nation-state border as it has existed in the last two centuries become obsolete in view of the conditions we are putting in place with global heating?

Absolutely, the way we look at things in terms of borders and the nation-state is deeply outdated, outmoded and inadequate in relation to contemporary realities. In fact, it dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which put an end to the Thirty Years' War in Europe and emanated from a triple layer of frontiers: on the geographical frontiers of a territory were superimposed the demographic frontiers of a population, on which were added the political frontiers of sovereignty. From there the concept of nation-state was created, based on the coincidence between a territory, a population and a political power, i.e. sovereignty.

The problem is that climate change today is eroding territorial borders, meaning which territories will still be habitable tomorrow. Migration is eroding demographic borders: we have a population spread over several territories and each territory is home to several populations. And globalisation is eroding political borders: on what does a single government still truly have sovereignty over today?

It is clear that this triple juxtaposition of borders no longer holds. And this concept of nation-states, as it has been conceived since the 19th century, no longer holds. That's why we tend to cling to borders as a marker of collective identity. It also explains the resurgence of the “sovereignist” movement, on the left as well as on the right.

The whole challenge is to redefine sovereignty in the era of climate change. And the best current example of this challenge are the small independent island states whose territories are being eaten up by rising seas and could become tomorrow the first kind of states without territories.