Pierre Cannet: “A strong civil society is critical to make sure that we can enable and adopt change”


When it comes to the environment Pierre Cannet has both flair and savoir faire. Working for almost a decade at WWF in France, Cannet undertook roles such as the Executive Director, Advocacy and Campaigns and Head of the Climate team. Before this he worked in New York with the United Nations Executive Coordinator of the UN Rio+20 Summit and as an advisor on Climate and Environment at UN Global Compact. Cannet has also worked with the French environment minister and during this time he had the opportunity to both engage in the preparation, and witness, the COP15 summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Pierre Cannet currently works for the environmental charity ClientEarth as Global Head of Public Affairs and Policy.

In reflecting upon his impressive résumé, Cannet remarked that it is crucial to “really believe in who you are and what you want to achieve.” Having been inspired by his parents who were involved as doctors in humanitarian action, Cannet said that he had always aspired to pursue “human-led, people-centred projects to make sure that we are solving one of the biggest problems of this century with climate change.” “I really wanted to make sure I was joining projects and organisations working on sustainable development, climate, nature and people.”

Such an opportunity was first made possible through a summer internship at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2008: “the heart and the brain” of global action, as Cannet put it. He worked in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and specialised in sustainable development. Cannet reminisced about the sight of hundreds of interns in the General Assembly Hall, the vibrant and innovative “energy” and the novelty of such exclusive access to decision makers. Cannet was also present in New York during the political fervour of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which he assessed as a “very interesting period of time.”

Throughout his career Cannet has interacted with an array of decision makers such as the likes of Barack Obama, François Hollande, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates, Nicolas Sarkozy, Al Gore, Lula da Silva and Bill Clinton. These are in addition to the many other “leaders from all around the world” during events at the openings of the UN General Assembly, Rio+20 and Climate COPs. Cannet described a brief moment during COP15 when he caught a glimpse of the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a corridor at the Bella Centre. She was “about to go into a meeting and [changed] her direction to meet with other stakeholders [representatives of BASIC countries] who were actually meeting in another room. She wanted President Obama to meet them to get an agreement around the Copenhagen Accord.”

Cannet remarked that it was “really exciting to be able to learn from this arena because it’s a very high level…and you can see these decision makers behaving as human beings in their negotiations”; this is a fundamental part of forming diplomatic relations and making agreements.

You can see these decision makers behaving as human beings in their negotiations

Our conversation shifted towards comparing the activity of the UN and non-profit organisations (NGOs). Cannet noted that the “roles are different”, yet “complementary” and that we “need both.” In the UN “you have many different kinds of bodies” and Cannet pointed to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) as an example of a body for assessing the science related to climate change which benefits tremendously from the support of the UN. Moreover, NGOs also have a lot of power in terms of “how much knowledge and expertise they have, sometimes about the communities or specific fields, the context…the history and sociology of a [particular] territory.”

Above all else, however, what Cannet truly believes is that “a strong civil society is critical to make sure that we can enable and adopt change.” This is because civil society represents “voices from citizens, voices of different communities, voices of scientists, voices of lawyers…we have all these voices together.” Cannet first became aware of this whilst working for the UN and then WWF. He recalled how “around COP21 we [established] coalitions with representatives from trade unions” and other NGOs and “I was very impressed by the level of knowledge, the expertise, the level of engagement, the intelligence that NGOs had” as well as their connections with “voices from across civil society.”

When I enquired about activism, Cannet responded that “I think the question of human rights and women’s votes and the question of salaries and how societies change has been made possible in the past thanks to diversity of engagements.” “In this critical time when we need to move fast…we might have different ways to engage. The question is: ‘what is the best place for each of us to fulfil this kind of engagement?’…and we need to do it in a peaceful manner, abiding to laws and human rights.”

Indeed, using the law as a tool for activism first occurred to Cannet whilst working for ClientEarth. This NGO focuses upon using the power of the law to protect the environment and its inhabitants by proposing new laws and, uniquely, works towards their enforcement as well. “We need laws to make sure that all countries are addressing this question of biodiversity loss, of climate change and protecting people…and helping people to make the transition.” Cannet added: “it needs to happen by having national laws and making sure that countries have the right policies in place to respond to these challenges; otherwise, it’s just kind of pledges made by heads of states, governments and ministers…at a global level and when they are back at home you don’t have the support capacity and the regulation legislations in place to respond to the challenge.”

Change must happen by having national laws and making sure that countries have the right policies in place to respond to these challenges

Cannet also remarked upon the usefulness of the law in ensuring “corporate accountability” and holding “to account governments”, scrutinising their success in fulfilling their obligations. Indeed, a recent case involved the European Union whereby a new taxonomy was put in place, but some of the activities described as “green” and “sustainable”, like using fossil gas, were not so, thus ClientEarth sought to act. Moreover, this summer ClientEarth launched a case against the UK government regarding their Net Zero plan. Indeed, the plan was considered not “fit for purpose” and “relied heavily on unproven and high-risk technology without any specifics in terms of near-term action.” Cannet lamented the unfortunate way in which backlash against climate action can be exploited as a campaigning tool by politicians, thus creating a discrepancy between the policy, science and actual benefit for the environment. “Pragmatism is not to be confused with politics”, Cannet concluded. “We need politicians to bring the climate ambition and solutions urgently to us – not to delay action.”

At COP28, which shall take place in Dubai between 30th November and 12th December this year, ClientEarth aims “to push parties to actually adopt and put in place ambitious climate national laws.” The focus of the summit is about the Global Stocktake, which is essentially a review of countries’ and stakeholders’ activities in order to judge how much progress has been made in relation to fulfilling the Paris Agreement of December 2015, and to best prepare future nationally determined contributions.

Cannet remarked that the climate crisis is a “constant, continuing dialogue between the international scale and the domestic level”, but that at the end of the day “we are all in the same boat.” He remains optimistically engaged and believes that in terms of technology “we have a scope of solutions, but we need to be mobilised so that they can be heavily deployed with the right decisions.” What is needed, Cannet tells me, is “people centred policies and people centred approaches” as well as “organisation”, “energy” and, above all, “courage.”

Image: Pierre Cannet, Movin’On Summit 2019

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