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Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.
Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC. Credit: UN Climate Change/Flickr
11 June 2015 14:20

The Carbon Brief Interview: Christiana Figueres

Leo Hickman


Leo Hickman

11.06.2015 | 2:20pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres has been the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since July 2010 and was reappointed for a second three-year term in July 2013. Before then, she was a member of the Costa Rican negotiating team at the UNFCCC from 1995-2009. In 1995, she founded the non-profit Center for Sustainable Development of the Americas, based in Washington DC.

On defining success at the Paris climate conference this coming December: “If financial support for developing countries to be able to follow that path [to bring their population out of poverty but to do so in a low-carbon, high-resilient way] is made evident, then I think we have success.”

The political possibility of limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5C: “I don’t know that it is possible to say right now are we going to end up with 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, 1.9C? But it’s got to be within that range. There is no doubt that it has to be below 2C.”

The legal form of the Paris agreement: “I don’t think that the whole agreement is actually going to have the same legal nature [as the Kyoto protocol], but rather there will be several components, key components, that will have different legal nature.”

Whether the world could tackle climate change without the UNFCCC: “This has to be done in a way that protects the most vulnerable. That would not occur without the UNFCCC.”

How the IPCC can best complement the UNFCCC: “There has been a very clear intent to be more and more guided by science. And you see it in all of the negotiations now that there is much more direct dialogue, in fact, even between the delegates and the scientists, which is a very welcome development.”

The usefulness of the IPCC’s carbon budgets to the UNFCCC: “I think [they have] brought a sense of realism and a sense of urgency into this discussion.”

The challenge of reviewing and aggregating the INDCs [intended nationally determined contributions]: “What we have here is a fruit salad. We have apples, we have pears and we, in fact, even have bananas.”

The importance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UNFCCC: “If we do not address climate change in a timely fashion, we will wipe out all the development gains that have been made in the past 15-20 years. We will wipe that out.”

The challenge for the UN of managing these parallel, inter-related processes: “When I first saw it I thought how is this going to be possible, and it is very, very difficult, but…we will remember 2015 as being a very important year in the history of the design of mankind.”

On reports that the French will present their own text for a climate deal, if progress at the UNFCCC is slow: “They are not going to come with their own text. This is not a Copenhagen 2.0.”

CB: How would you define success in Paris and what are the obstacles to success?

CF: Well, obviously, success is always in the eye of the beholder. So, I’m sure that if you asked 200 people, you’d get 200 different answers. But, from a big picture, what is success? I think success is a guiding framework that will act as a North Star, if you will, for both increasing resilience and decreasing emissions, in an inverse relationship to each other. So that over the next 10-20 years, we can see an economy that is increasingly resilient, because we have more and more investment in resilient infrastructure, and we would also see an economy that is decreasing its greenhouse gases. And the result of that is a global economy that is getting stronger and stronger, particularly in developing countries. So, to me, the heart of the challenge is how do you decouple GDP from GHG? How do you support, in particular, developing countries to continue their growth: to bring their population out of poverty but to do so in a low-carbon, high-resilient way. If that is mapped out in Paris, and if the financial support for developing countries to be able to follow that path is made evident in Paris, then I think we have success.

CB: On that final night in Paris, what do you anticipate to be the issues that are still being discussed and negotiated? What are those key issues?

CF: I think, clearly, one of the very very difficult issues is the financial support for developing countries. Not because we don’t know what that is, but because there are challenges in making that evident. And we do have some data that goes into the past from the Standing Committee on Finance. We do have some data as to what the financial support has been from North to South. But that piece, I think, is going to be one of the more complicated ones because there’s not necessarily full agreement on definitions of what constitutes what is inside the boundary of what is going to be recognised as financial support, and what is outside. Financial flows occur without necessarily being tagged, just like you can tag a photo now on the internet, right. But that’s not the way finance occurs. You can’t really tag it – this is climate finance or this is not climate finance. It’s much more complicated that that. And increasingly we see blending of instruments, of financial instruments to support the financial cost of any initiative, of any investment. So, it’s a much more complex issue than we thought it was at the beginning.

And yet, despite this complexity, we do have to get to the point where developing countries feel comfort that there is going to be enough financial support for them to make this huge technological leap that we are hoping that they are going to make. So, both because of the complexity, but also because there’s not a black and white answer to it, it’s going to be very much a, well, what is going to be on the table that provides comfort? So it’s a little bit hard to pin down and, frankly, it’s the developing countries that are going to have to decide, are they comfortable?

CB: The IPCC says that on current emission trends the world will use up the carbon budget for 1.5C in under a decade. Is 1.5C still politically possible?

CF: You know, it’s very interesting because the 1.5C and 2C came out of Copenhagen and most of the thinking and planning and policy design that has occurred since then has been targeting keeping us under 2C, so below 2C. And it’s only until recently that there has been a renewed concern around that, to find out is the 2C actually going to be appropriate, in particular, to protect the most vulnerable populations. Or should there be a ratcheting down to the 1.5C? It remains to be seen and is very much of a conversation right now.I actually think that it’s going to be very, very difficult for countries to commit to a specific temperature today because there are many, many factors that are going to affect that. I think what is absolutely critical is to set the destination, the intent, the collective intent throughout several decades of where we want to come. And, frankly, it should be about reaching an ecological balance that we no longer have, which is the balance between those emissions that we will have to put out because they’re unavoidable and the natural absorptive capacity of the planet. If we can reach that balance by the second half of the century, then we will have obtained the ultimate objective. And then we will be within that range of temperature. I don’t know that it is possible to say right now are we going to end up with 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, 1.9C? But it’s got to be within that range. There is no doubt that it has to be below 2C. How much below 2C – and it’s very obvious that lower temperatures provide more security and more safety. That is unquestioned.

CB: Treaty, protocol, legal instrument, outcome of legal force: does the legal form of the text matter, and what level of bindingness should the agreement have?

CF: If you ask governments about that question I don’t think that they would be able to answer that in one phrase. Because I think, contrary to the Kyoto protocol, this legal instrument that is being built here will not have one level of legal bindingness – and it’s interesting that you already use that word because it’s a word that we’ve actually created, it doesn’t really exist. But the fact that we’re already using that word, already denotes that we’re understanding that there is a much more nuanced consideration of legal nature of the different components of the text. So, once we have a Paris agreement, which will be accompanied by decisions that provide the modalities and procedures, but once we have a Paris agreement I don’t think that the whole agreement is actually going to have the same legal nature, but rather there will be several components, key components, that will have different legal nature. So, a much more complex situation than we had under the Kyoto Protocol.

CB: We’ve got the papal encyclical, the divestment movement, the growth of renewables, early evidence, as you’ve said, that emissions can be now decoupling from economic growth… Given external events, could the world tackle climate change without the UNFCCC?

CF: I think it is – first of all, it is already tackling climate change, right. Because you see already capital beginning to shift. Very, very interesting announcements from systemically important financial institutions, even just lately, that are really beginning to shift. You see capital decisions, or investment decisions, lending decisions, in the multilateral development banks already beginning to shift. So you see both public and private capital shifting, and that is exactly what needs to happen here in order to change the economy. Now, if you ask me would that capital have shifted without a UNFCCC process? Maybe – but not now. I think what the UNFCCC process does, and has to continue to do, is basically two components. First, to raise the voice of urgency. Because the transformation in the energy sector is one that I believe would happen anyway under normal market forces, because if you look at the evolution of the history of fuels, we would be moving toward more renewable energy anyway. But this is not about obeying the timing of the market, or even the timing of development of technology. This is about obeying the timing of science. So the UNFCCC, one of the very important things that this process has to do, is to raise the voice of urgency. There is only a small window in time that will allow us to tackle climate change. And the second part that I think is absolutely critical, and very unique to the UNFCCC process, in addition to the urgency, is the fact that this has to be done in a way that not only responds to the forces of the market and the development of technology, but this has to be done in a way that protects the most vulnerable. That would not occur without the UNFCCC.So, those two components are key and they do lead to a different outcome. An outcome that is much more directed by the moral imperative and the scientific urgency.

CB: On the point of scientific urgency, on the IPCC… Should it play a formal role in reviewing the INDCs [as was proposed by the previous chair of the IPCC] or any related UNFCCC assessments after Paris?

Well, that’s definitely going to be for governments to decide how they want to review the INDCs. But to ask the IPCC to do that doesn’t seem to me to make too much sense because the IPCC, what they do is they review literature that has already been published, scientific literature. And so they do a review of that literature. And so, if the IPCC were to do that, it would be a completely different mandate, completely different area that they would move into, because the INDCs is not about scientific research. The INDCs is about economic policies and economic legislation, energy legislation, land-use legislation, or policy or measures or initiatives. A completely different field to what the IPCC has. So I’m guessing that once countries decide that they want to review the INDCs, that would probably be much more a review within the UNFCCC process, similar to, you know, the process that is currently underway – multilateral assessments of the ICAs, IARs. Governments have already created this internal informal review process that is currently underway and that can be built on.

CB: But could the IPCC perhaps better complement the UNFCCC’s process by having, say, five-year cycles instead of six-to-seven-year assessment cycles? Is the timing correct at the moment, or helpful to the UNFCCC?

CF: You know, that has been discussed for quite a while because I think if you look at the history of the evolution of policy, I think the policy of climate change has been on a trajectory of quicker response to science. I think we were very, very far behind when this convention was adopted and I think there is a very clear intent now on the part of governments of being more responsive to science in a quicker way. Not that anyone thinks that we are quick, OK. But there has been a very clear intent to be more and more guided by science. And you see it in all of the negotiations now that there is much more direct dialogue, in fact, even between the delegates and the scientists, which is a very welcome development. Now, on the cycles, there has also been a question about that. But I have to tell you that there is also a discussion about the cycles of the conference of the parties, which are currently occurring once every year and some of the governments are interested in saying, “Well, after Paris is that still going to be necessary?” Or, because we move into an implementation phase, and that is stronger implementation than we have now, should we actually have the conference of the parties every two years? So the cycles, they are working independently of each other. I believe that what we will see before we see a tandem of cycles, I think we will see more and more dovetailing of the content rather than of the cycles. I think we shall see more and more influence of the science on policy, and vice versa, so that relationship between policy and science I think is one that will be strengthened in its content. Cycles, perhaps, not being as critical.

CB: Has the introduction of carbon budgets, that working group one of the IPCC gave us back at the end of 2013, been helpful to this process? Has it been constructive?

CF: Well, I think what it has done is reminded everyone that we do have planetary boundaries. That we’re not here working with limitless resources. So, the concept of boundaries is very, very helpful and has worked in tandem with the sense of urgency. That is why we have a sense of urgency, because we only have a limited budget. And it is a budget for the rest of the history of mankind. This is not a budget for the next ten years, for the next hundred, or for the next thousand. That is the budget that we have for the rest of the history of mankind. That is a daunting concept to even begin to incorporate into decision-making. So, in that sense, I think it has brought a sense of realism and a sense of urgency into this discussion.

CB: Given the difficulty over the comparability of methodologies, baselines, emissions data, etc, how meaningful and accurate can the formal review of the INDCS later this year truly be?

CF: There is not going to be a formal review of the INDCs later this year. What are you referring to?

CB: I thought in Lima there was an agreement to, when the INDCs have come in by the point of September, that there would be a formal assessment of whether and how they add up, that would take place around October…

CF: OK, thank you. Let’s separate two things. The countries themselves have actually volunteered to present their INDCs in an informal way to each other, because it has actually proven to be quite helpful to have a session in which there can be questions of clarification. What is your assumption behind this number? How are you going to make sure that this policy goes into effect?, etc, etc. That has actually been quite helpful and quite a few of the countries that have presented INDCs – in fact, I think all with the exception of two – every country has actually had this presentation of their INDCs and a questioning period. That’s been very, very helpful, but that’s an informal… I wouldn’t even call it a review. It’s sort of a presentation, with questions and answer. Different to that, is the request from parties to the secretariat specifically, not to each other, to write a synthesis report on the aggregate. So the secretariat will be aggregating all the INDCs that we have by then and we will be doing a report on the aggregate impact. So we will not go into each INDC, specifically and individually, but rather it will be the aggregation of it. What we will do is an analysis of the characteristics. For example, we will say so many INDCs are based only on mitigation, so many have mitigation and adaptation concerns. We may be looking into the different sectors that are presented in the INDCs. We may be looking at which of the INDCs have conditional components. We will be looking much more at trends and the aggregate impact of the INDCs, rather than into the INDCs of specific countries.

CB: But you’ve already said that of the INDCs that have come in already it looks like they don’t add up, or aggregate, to deliver 2C…

CF: Completely clear.

CB: But that aggregating process in October, is it established yet which body will do that?

CF: We will in the secretariat.

CB: So it won’t be, say, UNEP? You’re going to that that internally. OK. But that is going to be challenging because of the apples and pears comparisons between the ways that certain countries have delivered their INDCs against certain baselines, etc…

CF: Which is exactly why we are going to say what we have here is a fruit salad. We have apples, we have pears and we, in fact, even have bananas. So that is our responsibility to lay bare the diversity in the approaches of the INDCs. At the same time, I can already tell you that if you put the numbers together of the INDCs we already know that that first set – because remember it’s only the first set of INDCs that will be on the table this year – do not get us to 2C. And certainly not to stay under 2C. And most definitely not to get us to 1.5C. We already know that and everybody knows that. We don’t have to wait for any eureka moment in Paris to know that. And I’ve often told the press, please don’t come to Paris and all of a sudden discover that all the INDCs don’t put us on 2C because we already know that. And the governments know that also. That is why there is a very, very important part of the Paris agreement that truly reflects the reality here which is that first set of INDCs is the first contribution, but it is not the last. It is the first step along a journey. And what is important in Paris is certainly to welcome and receive these INDCs, unknown exactly how that is going to occur, but certainly there has to be a conceptual receptacle, if you will, built to receive all of these INDCs. But also, just as importantly as receiving the INDCs and acknowledging them, is to chart the long-term pathway.

The long-term pathway of emissions projections that is actually going to get us to global peaking within the next 10 years, says science, and then down to this ecological balance that I’m talking about, which some people call carbon neutrality, some people call it zero-net, for the second half of the century. That is what science is telling us is the only trajectory that is going to keep us under 2C. And Paris needs to look at both the very short-term, which is the pre-2020 emissions, the medium-term, which is the INDCs, but also the long-term, because Paris is not an agreement for five years. Paris, according to most countries that are negotiating and building this, is an agreement, a structure that is going to be accompanying us and guiding emissions for, perhaps, the next couple of decades.

CB: In September we have the Sustainable Development Goals coming up and they currently include a climate goal and an energy-related goal. How do you keep the UNFCCC and the SDG processes complimentary and so they don’t tread on each other. How is that managed and what are the risks, or opportunities even?

CF: You know, the ironic part about that it is only at the level of the processes that these two things are running in a parallel, complementary way. At the level of countries, there is no difference. I was recently in Egypt and Egypt is very interested, as is Morocco – two countries that are in the front of my mind right now – very interested in moving very quickly into increasing substantially the presence of renewable energy in their energy matrix. Now when Morocco or Egypt, or any other country, do that, when they get those investments, when they put more and more renewables online, is that sustainable development, or is that an answer to climate change? Frankly, it’s both. From a Moroccan or Egyptian perspective, what they’re doing is increasing their energy security and decreasing their dependency of the import of fossil fuels. So, if you want to say that is to do with sustainable development, well, yes, but it also has to do with helping climate change. It’s both. From a country’s perspective, those two things are inextricably linked. Thank heavens, because that is the reality.

Now, fortunately, or unfortunately, whatever way you want to look at it, there are two processes in the United Nations. Governments have created two processes for these two things for very understandable reasons and that is that the SDGs represent and aspiration of society say, “What kind of society do we want to have in 20-30 years? What are the characteristics of that society?” It’s an aspirational, visioning exercise, with metrics, which is good. In the climate convention, this is treaty bind. This is a legal text-producing process. What is agreed here is legally-binding. It is legally binding, certainly domestically and, when they agree to it, also internationally. So it’s a very different legal nature and here we measure according to increasing resilience and decrease in greenhouse gases, which are very specific metrics. Under the SDGs, they have different metrics for the different things. But they are two legally and procedurally two different issues, or two different processes that are very, very complimentary of each other and, from the countries’ point of view, are not to be divided. Fortunately, because that is what really counts. That is what really counts. And the other thing that one has to understand, is that, from the global perspective, from the planetary perspective, forget about the UN now in its infinite wisdom of two processes, they also completely go hand-in-hand for the following very specific reason. If we do not address climate change in a timely fashion, we will wipe out all the development gains that have been made in the past 15-20 years. We will wipe that out.  We will severely threaten any further development and growth, particularly in developing countries. And we will condemn the populations that are most vulnerable in every country, but particularly the populations where vulnerability is shared by all citizens, we are condemning them doubly, because they are already vulnerable and we would be condemning them to huge impacts from which they may not recover. So, the fact is from a planetary perspective, these two things are completely linked. From the countries’ perspective, they ‘re linked.

It’s only within the UN process that these two, for approach reasons and for practicality, have been separated. But it’s, frankly, an artificial – perhaps helpful – but nonetheless an artificial separation.

CB: I’m just thinking of the tightness of the two moments. So you’ve got September in New York for the SDGs and climate and energy being solidified, or negotiated within that. And then often with the very same negotiating teams, certainly from the developing countries, then arriving in Paris, or even in October in Bonn, with good or bad will, depending how it turned out in New York. I’m just wondering how you manage that in this process.

CF: Good or bad will. And exhaustion, in addition. [Laughs]

CB: I’m just thinking of the timescales. They are very tight.

CF: They are very, very tight. But this didn’t just happen by surprise. We knew that this was coming. [Amina] Mohammed in New York, my counterpart over there, we actually did sit down a couple of years ago and look at the 2015 calendar and made sure that all these wonderful delegations – and, as you say, there are some very small delegations that have both responsibilities and it’s a very crazy, crazy year for them – so we did make sure that we wouldn’t be in session at the same time. We also made sure that the first part of the year was more intense on the SDG side than it is on the climate side and the second part of the year is going to be more intense on the climate side than it is on the SDG side. So we did work that out ahead of time in the planning because we knew there was going to be this crunch and particularly difficult for small countries. That doesn’t mean that it is not exhausting, right. These people are incredibly courageous that they keep on going from one to the other. And it’s physically exhausting even if they are doing just one. Now, from a planetary perspective, you know, I look down at the earth as though I was the atmosphere here, from a planetary perspective, it’s actually very wise. If we all survive 2015’s exhaustion, which we must, it actually makes a lot of sense because these two things being so intertwined and so mutually impacting each other, it is best that they’re looked at conceptually as if they are one package. In their infinite wisdom, the governments decided that 2015 would be the deadline for both processes which, you know, when I first saw it I thought how is this going to be possible, and it is very, very difficult, but you can see that it makes sense because it does mean that we will remember 2015 as being a very important year in the history of the design of mankind.

CB: Finally, one last question: the French presidency have said they are willing to come forward with a text if progress here is too slow. Would that be constructive and welcome from your point of view?

CF: Well, I must say that that was a very unfortunate interpretation of what the French presidency has said. And they have clarified I don’t know how many times. What they are saying is that a) they remain neutral in guiding this process and they are committed to encouraging and shepherding this process to the end. And b) that they are committed to the work that is being done by governments currently under the guidance of the co-chairs – and you see them here working very, very hard supporting the work of the co-chairs. They are not going to come with their own text. This is not a Copenhagen 2.0. They are not going to come with their own text. There is a natural evolution in the process of the text that is, at some points in time, very, very worked by the governments themselves. Sometimes the governments ask the co-chairs for help and the co-chairs then put a paper that doesn’t have any status in front of governments for them to consider, then it goes back. There is naturally evolution and in the end, there will be the expectation of guidance from the presidency. That is not new. That is a very natural evolution of a negotiation. But guidance from the president once we get to Paris is very different from saying they will put a text on the table that they have invented from nowhere. That is not the case.

CB: OK, thank you very much for your time.

CF: Thank you.

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Main image: Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

(The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman on 10 June 2015 at the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany.)

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