UN Climate Chief: Talks Are Making Slow, Steady Progress

With a new round of climate negotiations about to get underway, Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations climate organization, explains in a Yale Environment 360 interview why, despite the obstacles, she thinks the world community is slowly inching its way toward an agreement.

Few jobs on the international stage are more daunting than the one held by Christiana Figueres, the woman in charge of United Nations talks aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Figueres, of Costa Rica, is executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which in 1997 led to the adoption of the landmark Kyoto Protocol but that, in recent years, has been widely criticized for failing to secure a treaty imposing binding limits on emissions.

Christiana Figueres
Christiana Figueres. UNFCCC

With a new round of talks set to begin next week in Doha, Qatar, Figueres sat down with Yale Environment 360 contributing writer Elizabeth Kolbert to assess the state of those negotiations. Figueres, whose father and brother both served as president of Costa Rica, said that contrary to public perceptions, global climate talks have actually been moving forward in a “slow but steady” manner, with a goal of securing a new accord in 2015.

In the interview, Figueres discussed the need for the United States to finally sign on to a global climate treaty, the inevitability of world economies making the transition to a low-carbon future, and the need for politicians to feel the same urgency as climate scientists about the threats posed by global warming. “There’s a huge gap between the two,” says Figueres, “and it is our very challenging task to encourage the closing of that gap.”

Yale Environment 360: It is becoming increasingly common to hear very knowledgeable people say that the possibility of holding average global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius is slipping away from us. Just the other day PricewaterhouseCoopers put out a report that said government ambition to limit warming to 2 degrees is highly unrealistic. Are these people right, and if they’re wrong, why do we keep hearing this?

Christiana Figueres: Well, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] actually has this challenge front and center in terms of drafting their Fifth Assessment report, and this is one of the main issues that they are looking at — what are the options for countries to reach the two-degree target? So the jury is still out. We will wait for the work of the IPCC and their assessment report to see what they are suggesting with respect to options. What is very clear and what no one denies is that of course the more delay there is in increasing mitigation, the more delay there is in decreasing emissions, the more the window is closed to the possibility of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations.

e360: There has been a lot written over the last couple of weeks about how Hurricane Sandy really represents a wake-up call for the U.S. and maybe now we’ll see a change in the politics around the issue in this country. We’ve also heard this before. And we just had a whole presidential campaign in which this issue really didn’t get discussed. Since Sandy, do you think that there has been any change? Do you feel that this is any kind of an opportunity?

Figueres: Yes, I certainly do think that this is yet another wake-up call. I did hear President Obama say quite categorically in his acceptance speech that he is not going to have a future that is threatened by increasing warming. I also heard [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg say very clearly right after Sandy that in his view this has been a wake-up call for New York specifically, but also for the broader United States to really understand the vulnerability in particular of coastal cities to the increasing challenges being brought by climate change. And I do think that this mirrors the growing awareness in the United States. So I do think that Sandy has contributed to this. Is it the tipping point? That remains to be seen.

e360: COP [Conference of the Parties] 18 begins later this month in Doha. What outcome or outcomes would in your view make that a successful meeting?

“The benefits of global climate change policy are unthinkable without the United States.”
Figueres: COP 18 needs to deliver a set of outcomes. The first is the immediate implementation of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to start without delay on January 1, 2013. And for that, what governments need to do is not to decide if there’s going to be a second commitment period, but rather how that is going to be brought into implementation, what the rules are going to be. Secondly, the Doha COP needs to take a broad array of institutional arrangements that have been in a design phase under the convention over the past few years and move those also quickly into implementation to support the mitigation and adaptation that, in particular, developing countries are undertaking.

Thirdly, the Doha COP needs to put forth some clarity on how governments are going to organize their work from now until 2015 in order to insure that they would be putting themselves in a good position to adopt a universal agreement in 2015. And, as they do that, at the same time they need to identify where are the possibilities for increasing the ambition of everyone on mitigation and adaptation. And fourthly, the industrialized countries need to give a clear idea of how are they going to be able to implement their promise of ratcheting up the financial support to developing countries to $100 billion by 2020.

e360: Some countries have obviously indicated a willingness to extend Kyoto with a second commitment period, but some have not, and of course you know we in the U.S. never signed on in the first place. So what happens if Doha ends without a clear second commitment period?

Figueres: There will be a second commitment period where these countries have actually already decided that there will be a second commitment period. We know that the European Union will be in the second commitment period. We have heard recently that Australia will be in the second commitment period, and we are assuming that other countries, such as Switzerland and Norway, will also be in the second commitment period. So there will be a second commitment period. What is still to be decided is what the rules are going to be for that second commitment period.

e360: Is there such a thing as global climate change policy without the U.S., or is that unthinkable? And do you sense an increasing frustration with the U.S. on the part of the rest of the world as many countries have already agreed to a second commitment period and we have not yet agreed to our first?

Figueres: I do think that the benefits of global climate change policy are unthinkable without the United States for two main reasons. First, from a domestic perspective, why would the United States allow other countries to pursue the technologies of the future while the United States stays with the technologies that are becoming every day more obsolete, hence losing its future competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world? I don’t think that the visionary leaders of the United States will let this happen. I do think that there is going to be increasing pressure in particular from the private sector to catch up with the rest of the world, which is moving toward low-carbon technologies. So just from a domestic point of view, it doesn’t make any sense. From an international perspective, it is also unthinkable because the fact is that the United States has the technology, has the investment power, has very ambitious responses and policy models not at the federal level but certainly at the state and city level, and has an enormous opportunity to derive benefits from this and to contribute to the solution.

e360: What about the frustration part of that, that we are now deep into this process and the U.S. so far has not made a formal commitment?

Figueres: One must say, given the historical responsibility that the United States plays in this issue, it is quite a unique position that the United States is in and one that frankly they have not responded to in a commensurate manner. So, yes, if the United States does not strengthen its participation in the global climate regime under the newly re-elected president I think there will be increased frustration with the United States.

e360: If you could say to the Americans, there is something we would like you to do differently or bring to the table that you haven’t over the last four years, what would that be?

Figueres: I think it would be quite refreshing for the United States to acknowledge its own vulnerability to climate change, and that is not just Sandy. You can go to the report that was recently released about American security and take a look not just on the East Coast, but to the entire security of the United States. I think that has been recognized by the United States. So I think that would be first a very healthy recognition, that it is not just the poor developing countries that are acutely vulnerable, but the United States is also vulnerable. And it would certainly be very welcome for the United States to take a leadership role as we move forward to the new agreement that will be reached by 2015.

e360: A lot of people think the whole process of international negotiations on climate change is — and I’m quoting you here — “stuck” and “ineffective.” But you argue that this is not in fact the case. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that disparity between global perception and reality. What is it that people should know about the outcome of these international negotiations that they don’t know?

“Over the past three years, governments have actually progressed in a slow but steady manner.”

Figueres: I think one of the problems here is that there is a perception that governments get together to just talk and they don’t make any decisions that have a policy effect on action, and that is actually not the case. Over the past three years governments have actually progressed in a slow but steady manner in constructing the international policy response to climate. So we have an ever-growing concentric circle. We now have the Kyoto protocol going into its second commitment period, whereby 10 to 12 percent of global emissions would be under a legally binding instrument that regulates those emissions. Going beyond the 10 to 12 percent, all industrial nations, including the United States, have made pledges of emission reductions [by] 2020. Fifty-five developing countries — which have no legal obligation and no historical responsibility — have also moved forward and made their own pledges. So 80 percent of global emissions are now under a voluntary structure of mitigation.

And thirdly, in order to move from the 80 percent to 100 percent, countries have agreed that they will move toward the universal agreement that will cover 100 percent of emissions by 2015. That, of course, is somewhat difficult to explain because it doesn’t fit into one sound bite. I also want to say the pledges that we currently have on the table, this 80 percent, are clearly not enough. So it is very clear, and governments have also acknowledged, that they need to increase the scale, they need to increase the speed in order to be able to fit into this window of getting to the 2 degrees. So they have a course and they have acknowledged the course is not ambitious enough.

e360: More than 190 countries is an unwieldy structure for a very urgent problem for which we do not have a lot of time. I’m just wondering, as everybody does struggle with how to move forward, whether you’re hearing that we just can’t get a consensus on this, and we have to think of different ways to move forward?

“Government needs to be very clear about the fact that we are moving toward a low-carbon global economy.”
Figueres: Well, what is actually true is that we have had an increasing amount of consensus over the past few years. Now is that enough? Clearly not and I think one of the binary ways of thinking that we have to very quickly break out of is that there is only one way of going about this andthat is exclusively through government agreements that come top-down. That is not the only way to do it. It is absolutely central because government needs to set the course and be very, very clear about the fact that we are moving toward a low-carbon global economy. But the speed with which we do that does not depend solely on government. That also depends on the very active and responsible participation of the private sector and of civil society and hence there has to be a host of efforts that are concurrent with each other, that mutually feed on each other, in order to bring about the type of transformation that is necessary.

e360: You were quoted as having called the executive director’s job thankless and you’ve also called it the most inspiring job in the world. Now that you’re a few years into this, what would you say? Is it thankless or inspiring, or maybe both?

Figueres: It is both. It’s thankless in the sense that the complexity of this process is one that is very hard to get your arms around, and hence you never read in the newspaper, any media, anybody thanking governments for this kind of approach because it is complex. There is an urgency here, and it’s very clear that the complexity is working against the urgency.


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So it is a thankless job because we have the responsibility to support two realities at the same time. One reality is the reality of what science is demanding and which we have to hold front and center as our guiding light for our work here. We also have the obligation and the honor to support the political process that governments are putting together to address the urgency and the challenge that they have in front of them. And those two things are equally real. There’s a huge gap between the two, and it is our very challenging task to encourage the closing of that gap.

It is the most inspiring job in the world because what we are doing here is we are inspiring government, private sector, and civil society to [make] the biggest transformation that they have ever undertaken. The Industrial Revolution was also a transformation, but it wasn’t a guided transformation from a centralized policy perspective. This is a centralized transformation that is taking place because governments have decided that they need to listen to science. So it’s a very, very different transformation and one that is going to make the life of everyone on the planet very different.