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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Christiana Figueres Optimistic For Ultimate Global Climate Deal

Published: February 6, 2018

By Steve Curwood

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Secretariat stopped by the Living on Earth studios on her way from the University of Massachusetts Boston to the next phase of international climate negotiations that began in Bonn, Germany on April 29. The Bonn session is one of many leading up to a final meeting in Paris, France in 2015 when nations have pledged to come together on a binding deal to expand the Kyoto Protocol to include all major emitters of global warming gases. Figueres spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.


FIGUERES: Thank you very much for the invitation.

CURWOOD: So Copenhagen is largely considered to have ended in disaster. Why did you take this job?

FIGUERES: I took this job because I believe this is the most important thing that humanity is doing right now. We have never faced a more serious challenge. And I thought, “You know, there may be some little grain of sand that I can contribute to this.” And, honestly, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror having two children and say I did everything I could unless I really tried to do my best. So here I am.

CURWOOD: So…but let’s consider, the United States is out—although it originally signed Kyoto, it then took it back. Canada is out; Japan won’t go ahead with more commitments…what’s the point of the Framework Convention on Climate Change today?

FIGUERES: The point continues to be the original point, which is to shepherd governments toward their collective efforts to bring down emissions—which they haven’t done yet as a collectivity—and to adjust to the now inevitable effects of climate change. And I am the first one to admit we can’t tick that box, we can’t say “done,” “succeeded,” but we are definitely moving in the right direction.

CURWOOD: So, all right…what has been accomplished since Copenhagen?

FIGUERES: A couple of things are really, really different now than Copenhagen. First of all, governments have actually, formally committed themselves to come to a global agreement. They had not done that by Copenhagen. They have now said, “We are going to negotiate a legally-based universal agreement,” and they have set themselves the timetable for 2015. Secondly—unfortunately, actually—there is much more evidence for climate change. There is not one single country not being affected by climate change—the United States included, because I don’t have to remind anyone in this country about the droughts of last year and about Sandy that hit certainly New York but the East Coast. So much more evidence of climate change, but also the good news is there is much more going on. We have around the world already 30 countries that have binding climate change legislation. We have 100 countries with renewable energy legislation. We have many more countries with energy efficiency incentives. We have the private sector moving in to invest in clean technologies. There’s much more bottom of activity to respond to climate change and to address climate change than we had before. In addition to that, what governments have actually moved on is, they’ve moved into the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period, which started on the first of January of 2013. The reason why the Kyoto Protocol is important is because it is the treasure box of the rules and regulations that give integrity, environmental integrity, to the efforts of governments. Without those rules and regulations, we wouldn’t know whether we’re progressing or not. The downside to the Kyoto Protocol, as we have it now—because you mentioned some countries have exited—is the fact that it only covers 10-12% of global emissions. So governments understand that, and they understand that they actually need to cover 100% of emissions, which is why they have now committed themselves to a global agreement by 2015.

CURWOOD: So what’s the next step to happen now?

FIGUERES: Well, the next immediate step is that starting on April 29, governments will be coming to Bonn to discuss with one another what are the very, very clear, concrete milestones that they will want to set for themselves in order to have a clear path to reach the agreement in 2015. At the same time, they are looking at how can they increase their efforts, how can they increase their ambition on reducing emissions and on adapting to the inevitable effects before they even reach the agreement of 2015, because the agreement of 2015 will not go into effect until 2020. So it is very clear that the world cannot wait until 2020. So they are walking down two parallel paths: A, how do they reach that agreement, and how that path is going to look like; and B, on the side of that and in parallel, how do they actually up the ante on their efforts as of right away.

CURWOOD: Explain for us briefly what is the deal of 2015.

FIGUERES: It’s going to be a much more complex and challenging job than negotiating the Kyoto protocol, which we did in 1997. And the reason why that is, is because the concept of the global north and the global south doesn’t really exist anymore. We have much more of a diversity of capacity in the emerging economies and in fact even in the industrialized economies. There is much more differentiation now. So it is going to be a very difficult conversation because the fact remains that all industrialized countries have a much larger historical responsibility for climate change, and that needs to be represented in this universal agreement. But the other reality also needs to be considered, which is: if we don't do something about it, most of the future emissions of greenhouse gases are going to come from the emerging countries in the developing world. So both of those two realities need to be brought together, and there needs to be a coherent response that brings together responsibility, capacity, and the response to science.

CURWOOD: Some would say that the structure of the Kyoto Protocol itself—to have developed countries go first—was flawed, given that it required a country to surrender what they perceived to be a competitive advantage to big, powerful developing countries such as Brazil and China and India, and especially as progress was delayed for so long. What’s your opinion of that in hindsight?

FIGUERES: I don’t think the Kyoto Protocol was flawed. It was very well fundamended on the principle of historical responsibility. It is incontrovertible that industrialized countries—in particular, the large industrialized countries; let’s talk about the United States—have much more of the historic responsibility. In fact, the group of them have all the historic responsibility, and the largest industrial economies have much more of the responsibility within that group. So the Kyoto Protocol was conformed according to that rationale, and that was fundamentally correct. Now, however, we are moving into a different future. And now it is not just about historical responsibility; it is also about future capacity to contribute to the solution. And it’s also about the gradual recognition that the countries are all coming to that actually, it is a collective responsibility of all countries, no matter how small and how large. We are now at the point where every single country has to assume some responsibility according to their capacities. The other thing that is very important is to realize that many countries are coming into their efforts on addressing climate change not just because of their sense of moral responsibility but perhaps for a much more compelling reason, because they realize that this is their greatest opportunity, because they understand that we are moving toward a lower-carbon economy and it is in their interests to remain competitive in the future, global low-carbon global economy that they themselves become low-carbon. Otherwise, they’re going to become a beast of the past.

CURWOOD: So the two biggest emitters on the planet—

FIGUERES: The US and China.

CURWOOD: The US and China, yes, recently announced that they are going to set up a joint task force to look at greenhouse gases. But that’s outside the worldwide comprehensive agreement of Kyoto. What’s your view of this process?

FIGUERES: I very much welcome these efforts on both the US and the China governments’ sides to have a more formalized outlook—this is actually nothing new. Both governments have been having bilateral conversations for quite a few years and have actually been collaborating with each other because they understand that they need each other today and in the future. And that if there is going to be an agreement on climate, it absolutely needs an agreement between these two countries—but it cannot be circumscribed only to those two countries. So those two countries are critical but not sufficient, because it is absolutely true that every single country is being affected by the climate. So those that say, “You know, well, we could agree to this if only we had a bilateral agreement or even if had the seventeen largest economies agreeing with each other,” that is very helpful, and we have always supported those conversations. But finally, in the end, bottom line: every single country needs to be at the table and needs to have its interests represented. Just because Tuvalu doesn’t have any global responsibility in the past, present, or future doesn’t mean it’s not being affected. So all countries, large and small, need to be at the table, need to agree to the framework that is going to take us forward, but it is fundamentally clear that the largest economies need to come to an agreement within themselves.

CURWOOD: What do you think is needed politically to get the United States aboard a binding worldwide deal to reduce global warming gas emissions?

FIGUERES: You know, I actually think the United States is already moving in a very, very impressive direction. I was in California last week to congratulate California for its leadership certainly in this country. But also the United States, we already know the EPA has put in transportation fuel standards that have helped. We know that they are working on finalizing the regulations on new power plants, and that will also help. We know they have on their docket the regulations for existing power plants, and that they will need to move into that space also very quickly. So the United States is actually looking at all of the different niches in the emitting sectors where they can regulate through EPA, through DOE, perhaps through the Department of Interior on land use issues. They’re looking at a very broad array of policies and measures that can be taken under leadership of the federal government to actually bring the United States to what it has already promised, which is a 17% reduction in their emissions. Now the presence of gas in the United States has also contributed to the reduction of emissions. All of this is very good news. Ultimately, however, the United States will have to incur the effort of compiling, measuring all of these efforts and being able to put on the table the number that represents the economy-wide reduction target that the United States will be able to take. How this then will go into a legally-based agreement is a matter that remains for discussion among the countries. But I have no doubt that the United States is moving in the direction of reducing its emissions for its own competitive purposes.

CURWOOD: That is rather like, you know, the couple that is living together—the US is doing all the stuff but not willing to sign, not willing to get married to the rest of the world to have a deep commitment, and a deep express commitment.

FIGUERES: I think the US actually is intending to get married to the rest of the world. I can’t imagine that the US would want to live without the rest of the world. It would actually be pretty lonely. So I do think that what the United States is doing is preparing the ground, and preparing the ground with China is absolutely key. But they will also have to come in with a commitment that is measurable, that is transparent, and that is credible. They have to convince the rest of the world that their efforts are credible and that those efforts are commensurate to the responsibility of the United States.

CURWOOD: Now what about China? China has a long record of reducing emissions and has some fairly ambitious activities, but at the end of the day, they keep saying they want it to be a voluntary thing for them. How can China be brought to the table to, again, get married to the rest of the world with a binding agreement?

FIGUERES: Well, I also think China is very much looking to the rest of the world, and, in fact, to its leadership in the world and is not shying away from that. As you mentioned, they have very, very ambitious targets on renewable energy, energy efficiency, building codes, vehicle codes. So they are doing their homework, also, and in fact every single one of the targets they have set themselves has not just been met—it has been exceeded. So they are certainly—and they are also doing that for their own purposes. We have just heard over the past few days the terrible pollution situation that citizens in Beijing have had. So they’re doing it not just to save the world; they’re doing it out of their own national interest, which is the most compelling motivation for a country to move forward. How those policies and goals in China are going to be brought into a global agreement is the same situation for the United States. That remains to be the work that all of these countries have to do with each other to see how they structure this framework so that the US will come in in a meaningful way, China will come in in a meaningful way, and every other country will contribute in a way that actually meets their economic interests and meets up to the demands of science. That remains the challenge.

CURWOOD: How possible is it to get a worldwide agreement that binds all to important greenhouse gas emission reductions?

FIGUERES: You know, I’m optimistic that this will be done in 2015. For the very simple reason—two reasons: A, that governments have had a while to consider this and continue to reiterate their commitment to this, most recently at the Doha meeting at the end of last year, and B, frankly, because we don’t have a choice. The scenarios without a global framework agreement on this are too scary to even consider. And governments know that. So they are going to reach an agreement.

CURWOOD: What’s the host country for the negotiations in 2015? And what has been their record?

FIGUERES: France. France will be hosting us for 2015, and I am happy to share with you that the French government is already now—three years out—already getting ready for that. They have already chosen their lead negotiator, they’re putting their team in place, and they are already acting passively because they can’t do it actively because they need to bow to the current presidencies. But they’re already passively taking a political leadership role, fully understanding that this is a marathon. This is from here to 2015. This is not just about a year, two-year process. It is also about strategically thinking along these three years—how do they get to the final outcome. So I’m actually delighted to be already today working with the French presidency on this.

CURWOOD: Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s been a leader in the US, while he in the Senate on the matter of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, took great care to announce that this process is going forward. What do you read into that?

FIGUERES: I read that John Kerry is fully aware of the importance of this topic. He is one of the most knowledgeable people in the United States on this topic. So, he understands the science; he understands the urgency. He is now bringing his political clout to bear on solving the problem. And he fully well understands that the United States needs to do its part, and that China needs to do its part, and that both of them need to agree with each other on how they are collectively going to support each other moving forward and how they are going to reach out to the rest of the countries.

CURWOOD: How much time is left for the world to come to an agreement on this?

FIGUERES: You know, there is no—this is not, you know, like jumping off a cliff…all of a sudden, there’s one magical date. What is absolutely clear is that the longer we delay our emission reduction efforts, the more expensive it’s going to become, because the longer we delay the international policy framework as well as national policy framework that give the market signal to the private sector as to how they should be investing, the more we’re going to go into what we call the “lock-in,” which is technology’s investors are going to be investing in high-carbon technologies that will have to live out their lifetime of 20-30 years, so that’s why it’s important to accelerate as much as possible the market signals that policy can give so that investors can shift their investments into the low emission technologies. And they are doing that; we have already surpassed $1 trillion into renewable technologies around the world. And in fact, in the United States—I’m happy to share with you—just last year, just in the year 2012, the United States installed three gigawatts of solar energy, 13 gigawatts of wind, meaning if you add those two together, 49% of the new energy that was installed in the United States last year—49% was renewable energy, so we’re moving in the right direction.

CURWOOD: Now later this year, the countries meet in Poland on their way to this big meeting in France in 2015. What needs to happen this year in Poland?

FIGUERES: This year in Poland, there needs to be much more clarity than we have right now as to what the milestones are going to be. What are they going to accomplish on the road toward the agreement? Because the draft agreement needs to be on the table by December of 2014. So they need to come to a very clear understanding with one another what the scope and design of this agreement is going to be so that they can actually then, in January of 2014, begin to design that agreement. So it’s a very, very important year. I call it the “sponge year.” It’s a very important year in which they need to collect as much information from each other as to what their expectations—their collective expectations—are, what this framework is going to look like, what is it going to cover, and how is it going to be flexible into the future, because you can’t have a framework that just establishes and freezes reality into the 2015 reality. This needs to be a framework that accompanies the government and the private sector into the next decades, so building flexibility into a legally-based framework is not an easy thing, but that is their challenge.

CURWOOD: Now these agreements are really complex, and there are very, very many different issues. But from your perspective, what would be the one or two items that need to be resolved by the end of this year that would make you feel that yes, the world is on target to a good agreement by 2015.

FIGUERES: Two things: I would like to see a clear work plan—exactly where are they going to be at what month of the year, next year—and secondly, I would like to see more clarity. We’re beginning to see the contours of that, but more clarity as to the scope and the design of that agreement. It is, as you say, a very, very complex situation. It covers many different issues, and it needs to respond to the needs of 193 different countries. So it is a multi-dimensional effort that is moving forward here; there are many, many balls in the air at the same time, but I am optimistic that countries are really looking at this very seriously, they are doing their internal homework in their own countries such that they will be able to come to the global conversation, be able to put all of their national agendas on the table, and then find some common ground upon which they can all move forward.

CURWOOD: Christiana Figueres, what gives you hope?

FIGUERES: What gives me hope is two things. Both the fact that the next generation—represented for me very personally by my daughters—expects us to step up to the plate. We are responsible adults. We cannot walk away from a problem that we fully understand, A. And B, what also gives me hope is that we actually have the tools. We have the capital. We have the technologies. We have the science. It’s a question of focusing our political and collective civil will to actually solving this problem. We know it is possible because we have seen, step by step, we have seen that we are walking in the right direction. It’s a question now of scaling up both the speed and the ambition with which we do this. I have no doubt that humanity rises to the challenges that we’re faced with. We have always done that in history. This happens to be the greatest challenge that we are faced with right now. But every other challenge that we have actually stepped up to in history has been the greatest challenge. So we don’t have an option. We don’t have a plan B because we don’t have a planet B. We are going to solve this.

CURWOOD: Christiana Figueres is executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Thank you so much for coming by.

FIGUERES: Thank you for the invitation.

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