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Patricia Espinosa is the outgoing executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Patricia Espinosa is the outgoing executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
INTERVIEWS
15 June 2022 16:27

The Carbon Brief Interview: UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa

Daisy Dunne

06.15.22

Daisy Dunne

15.06.2022 | 4:27pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa

Patricia Espinosa is the outgoing executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, first appointed in 2016. She is a Mexican politician and diplomat with more than 35 years of experience in international relations, including as minister of Foreign Affairs of Mexico from 2006 to 2012 and as chair of COP16 in Cancun.

  • Espinosa on being UN climate chief: “It has been just an amazing personal and professional experience. I cannot say it was easy. It hasn’t been easy.”
  • On her personal highlight: “There are a few. Probably the most recent one has been dealing with Covid – moving into a virtual space and still keeping the process moving forward. That was really amazing.”
  • On her biggest challenge: “Personally, I had some personal challenges – the diagnosis of cancer, which came very unexpected.”
  • On progress towards the Paris Agreement goals: “The truth is that we are not yet there. We are still very far from where we need to be.”
  • On COP26: “It was actually the most significant progress made since the Paris Agreement was adopted, but we are not yet there. There were also disappointments.”
  • On current food and energy crises: “This is a situation that is affecting the way we can address climate change.”
  • On UN climate negotiations in Bonn: “I think what we have seen here is again, on some issues, still the divide between developed and developing countries.”
  • On loss and damage: “There is no doubt that financial resources are needed…And, yes, a part of those resources need to come from the governments of the developed countries.”
  • On Egypt’s role in hosting COP27: “Egypt is making a huge effort…There are still many issues that need to be addressed.”
  • On national climate plans for 2030: “I’m afraid that, so far, we are not seeing a big change in the numbers regarding the emissions reductions that are needed.”
  • On delays to the biodiversity summit COP15: “I am really concerned that the conference on biodiversity has not been able to meet yet.”
  • On her successor: “I think in terms of priorities that the person should give, I would say to listen a lot – to listen to people – to try to put him or herself in the shoes of other people.”
  • On her future plans: “I would like to do some consultancy work in the area of sustainability and climate change.”

Carbon Brief: Executive secretary, you are coming to the end as your time as UN climate chief. I wanted to ask you first of all, what motivated you to take up the role and has it lived up to your expectations?

Patricia Espinosa: Well, I have been a career diplomat in my country Mexico for over 35 years – and a big part of that career was in the multilateral area. And so it became very clear and evident to me that the only way to address so many of the big challenges that countries face is by working together, so I’m really a true believer in multilateralism. Then I had the opportunity to preside over COP16 in Cancun, which was really a life-changing experience for me. I did that in my capacity as a foreign minister, which was very unusual because normally it would be the environment ministers who would do that. But so it really gave me this motivation to continue working on sustainability and in trying to help create the change – the big transformation – that needs to happen.

It has been just an amazing personal and professional experience. I cannot say it was easy. It hasn’t been easy. I don’t think that any of these multilateral processes and multilateral institutions are easy. If you think that you have different interests and perspectives – or, in our case, one of the most universal entities in the UN system, almost 200 countries – and you try to bring forward an agenda, but then also, within the staff, you have so many different nationalities and people from so many different backgrounds working together. That means that there is an extra effort in bringing the staff together, in bringing the vision of the organisation together, and, at the same time, also in bringing together the parties. So yes, I’m convinced that this diversity and plurality is very enriching in all senses of the word. But it does pose some challenges. But definitely, yes, it has lived up to my expectations.

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CB: And, when you look back, are there any highlights that stand out for you?

PE: There are a few. Probably the most recent one has been dealing with Covid – moving into a virtual space and still keeping the process moving forward. That was really amazing. And there I need to recognise the incredible work by our colleagues in the staff, but also by delegates from member states who were willing to be sitting in front of the screens for hours and hours, in some cases. Because of the time differences, people were really literally working through the night in order to take part in those conversations. It’s really just so reassuring to see how everybody is willing to put their contribution in making the process move forward.

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CB: What about some of the toughest challenges you faced and did you manage to overcome them?

Well, yes, personally, I had some personal challenges – the diagnosis of cancer, which came very unexpected, maybe everybody’s diagnosis of cancer is unexpected. I feel very grateful and privileged to have been able to face such a difficult moment in probably the best possible circumstances: great medical treatment, great support from my colleagues at work, my family as well. It was also a very important learning experience about human nature, about myself, about the limits of what you can control, the importance of letting go and just allowing things to happen.

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CB: And, over your time at UN Climate Change, do you feel that countries have made enough progress towards meeting the Paris Agreement goals?

PE: Well, I think we have made progress. If you look at individual countries, some have made more than others. But the truth is that we are not yet there. We are still very far from where we need to be. And that that remains the reality so we cannot be complacent when we look at our achievements. Yes, we have to recognise them and it is only fair to do so. But at the same time we need to tell ourselves and the world the truth: that we’re still very far away. Bold and transformative decisions that need to happen have an impact on everyone’s lives. So this is something that needs to be understood. It’s not anymore a situation where we can say, ‘well, yes, but there are some groups of interests that would not want to come along’. This is about the existence of humanity.

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CB: We’re now more than half a year on from COP26. Do you feel that summit delivered what was needed?

PE: I think there were very good and positive outcomes. To me, the most positive side of the outcomes that we got in Glasgow was the fact that it gave clarity to parties on what we need to do on mitigation, on adaptation, on finance and on loss and damage. For example, loss and damage has been a very controversial issue – continues to be controversial, of course – but it was included as one of those elements where we need to continue working. The fact that it really grew its importance in the agenda, also going forward, I think was very positive. At the same time, it was also discouraging to see that the $100bn that needed to be mobilised by 2020 did not come together. We got a delivery plan that says that we should be getting there by next year. In my view, this is a source of disappointment for many. So, I think we made progress. It was actually the most significant progress made since the Paris Agreement was adopted, but we are not yet there. There were also disappointments.

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CB: And, since COP26, we’ve seen some big global challenges such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and escalating food and energy crises. How do you think these events have affected international climate action and the momentum going forward?

PE: I do think that this is a situation that is affecting the way we can address climate change. To start with, the fact that – as you mentioned – the energy crisis, the food crisis, general disruptions in value chains everywhere. All of that is creating consequences for the everyday lives of many people. And normally those most affected are the ones that live in the most vulnerable situations. So it is a very difficult environment. When you ask politicians to take decisions, they will normally focus in the immediate needs. And this is this is where I think that the focus can can shift far away from climate change, even if those very issues, like energy security, food security, are very much linked to climate change. But we still run the risk. The same about the financial support that is so much needed for climate action in developing countries. There are huge amounts of money flowing into into the war, and at the same time, in the developed world, economic crises as a result of the consequences of the pandemic. So it all creates a situation where elements come together that will make more difficult our accelerated progress, which is what we really need.

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CB: We’re speaking now from Bonn, where international climate negotiations are still ongoing. How have these negotiations gone? Has there been the kind of progress that you wanted to see here?

PE: Well, I think it has been reassuring to see that delegations have engaged and are working really very, very hard. And these are very complex and very exhausting negotiations. So I am seeing, yes, the commitment that is needed in order to be able to make progress. At the same time, I think what we have seen here is again, on some issues, still the divide between developed and developing countries. And I do believe that, to properly address these issues, we need to overcome that divide. But by that, I don’t mean that developing countries should not be supported. Of course they need to be supported. But the commitments to support developing countries need to be seen, not as a way of helping others, but really an investment in the future for all – an investment in the future of humanity. And in the case of developing countries, they really need to do their utmost to make the best contribution they can. Many are trying, but the fact is that we know we’re still not there, so we really need to continue trying in this regard. The fact that now we have the opportunity to make a review of the national climate plans every year, I hope will be an incentive to maintain a constant assessment of: “What else can we do? How can we do more? How can we increase ambition?”

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CB: How important is the issue of loss and damage to these kinds of negotiations?

PE: It is very, very important. I think the fact that these extreme weather events have been increasing – every time more severe, every time they provoke more destruction and now are more frequent – I think makes the issue of loss and damage even more relevant for so many. We need to overcome some mistrust among countries and really address the issue and try to find the best possible solutions all together. But avoiding the discussion is not something that will resolve the issue.

CB: And do you think the wealthier parties, such as the US and EU, need to listen to demands for a loss and damage finance facility for this kind of progress to be achieved?

PE: There is no doubt that financial resources are needed. If you look at the situation of many of these very, very vulnerable countries – when they are hit by two or three hurricanes or cyclones in two months and a big part of their infrastructure and is destroyed, lots of people dead people, people falling ill – I think it there is no way to deny that resources are needed. So I think that is something that we need to really discuss in the most open manner with the best intentions. I think that it’s also important that we don’t fall into a situation where we have some unreasonable demands that we know are just not viable. We need to sit together and find the right solutions and the right instruments in order to get those financial resources. And, yes, a part of those resources need to come from the governments of the developed countries.

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CB: And so what role will Egypt have in guiding negotiations at COP27? And do you think that Egypt is currently showing the leadership that’s needed?

PE: Well, the presidency plays a very important and very, very definite role in the negotiations because this is a party-driven process. While the secretariat supports the presidency – as it also supports parties in the different negotiating streams – it is also true that the presidency has a unique authority. There’s only one president of the conference and that’s the only person that can convene parties, appeal to parties, ask parties to come together in one way or the other. So yes, the presidency plays a very, very important role. I think Egypt is making a huge effort. We have been working with many teams from the secretariat with Egypt in putting together all the preparations for hosting the conference. That is going well. There are still many issues that need to be addressed. And many things that need to be decided. Today there was a briefing session by the COP27 presidency and parties and observers were briefed about the thematic days that they intend to organise and some of the initiatives that they would like to see. I think a very interesting development in this conference has been that, besides the negotiations and the negotiated outcome, there are all these outcomes that come from the climate action space that I would say are very important to mobilise parties and non-parties and also to show progress and to make commitments.

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CB: And so parties have been asked to “revisit and strengthen” their climate pledges by the end of 2022. But some didn’t submit their pledges by the last deadline. Do you have hope that these nations are going to come forward with stronger pledges?

PE: We are working with them. We are reaching out to them and trying to understand and to see what their most important challenges are in putting their NDCs [nationally determined contributions] together, in reviewing their NDCs. So yes, I’m hopeful. I’m afraid, however, that so far, we are not seeing a big change in the numbers regarding the emissions reductions that are needed.

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CB: In addition to COP27, countries are also due to meet in China for COP15, the biodiversity summit. This summit has already been delayed four times since 2020 and many have raised the alarm about the lack of progress towards a deal to reverse nature loss. I wondered if you had any thoughts on this lack of progress and whether you think it has implications for climate action?

PE: Well, there is a very strong interrelationship between the three Rio conventions: desertification, the CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity] and our convention. I think, in that regard for all of us, action in each one of our areas brings benefits to many other areas. So, yes, I am really concerned that the conference on biodiversity has not been able to meet yet. At the same time, there’s a lot that is happening in the area of biodiversity. So, I do hope that this [UNFCCC] is also important work that feeds to the conference when it meets, so that hopefully it can be even more ambitious than originally foreseen.

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CB: Some figures, including CBD executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, have called for more joint action on climate change and biodiversity loss, for example, joint summits or joint discussions. Is this something that you would also like to see happen?

PE: We have been strengthening our collaboration in a very systematic manner. I think it’s absolutely positive and I hope we can find the right way of doing it. The truth is that each of us has a mandate and has our governing bodies. So we need to find the right way of doing these kinds of things. And I would say it’s probably not necessarily only about discussions. Frequently, we – we meaning Elizabeth, Ibrahim [Thiaw, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification] and myself – are invited to panels where the three of us are participating and to be very honest, I’m not so sure whether that’s so interesting for people. I think it’s more the interaction with those who can put actions in place on the ground and governments and experts – this big diversity of actors – that is absolutely needed. And, yes, hopefully with a very clear integrated vision.

CB: Many have speculated on who your successor will be with names such as Yasmine Fouad and Alok Sharma mentioned. Do you have any thoughts on what kind of person should be taking up the role?

Well, the [UN] Secretary General has sent out the [job specification] where he has put in place in very clear ways, what are the tasks that are expected from the executive secretary. I think in terms of priorities that the person should give, I would say to listen a lot – to listen to people – to try to put him or herself in the shoes of other people. I think that is very key. Not only here, by the way, but in general in multilateral fora. If you only speak, you don’t really understand, you don’t generate this bond of trust that really needs to be there in order to make progress.

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CB: Thank you. And my final question, can I ask about what your plans are when you depart from this role?

PE: Well I have not yet made really specific plans but I would like to do some consultancy work in the area of sustainability and climate change. I hope that from different perspectives and different areas, I can also continue to contribute to that transformation on the ground. So I’m also very excited about that.

CB: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

PE: Thank you.

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This interview was conducted by Daisy Dunne in Bonn, Germany, on 14 June 2022.

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