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

UN Leader Optimistic About Global Climate Deal

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres. (Bobby Bascomb)

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Secretariat, visited the Living on Earth studios on her way from UMass Boston to international negotiations in Bonn, Germany. The Bonn session is one of many leading up to a meeting in Paris, France in 2015 when nations have pledged to sign a binding agreement to curb global warming gases. Secretary Figueres told host Steve Curwood she's sure there will be a global deal because there is no other choice, and it's in every country's interest.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In case anyone was wondering if global warming is getting worse, consider the number 400. That’s how many parts per million of CO2 the world is likely to reach later this month, and that's higher than it's been in more than three million years.

CO2 is the major greenhouse gas associated with human activity, and according to the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA we’re already well over 399 this year - up from a bit more than 350 back when the UN first started climate negotiations in 1992. And on April 29 UN climate negotiators came to Bonn, Germany for the latest in a series of meetings over the next two years aimed at a climate agreement that binds all nations, after a meeting in Copenhagen intended to do that ended in failure in 2009.

Christiana Figueres is the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and she stopped by the Living on Earth studios on her way to the meeting in Bonn. Madame Secretary, welcome to Living on Earth.

FIGUERES: Thank you very much for the invitation.

CURWOOD: 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: 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 support their efforts 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: 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 up 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 to 12 percent of global emissions. So governments understand that, and they understand that they actually need to cover 100 percent of emissions, which is why they have now committed themselves to a global agreement by 2015.

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 fundamented 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. 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 understand 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 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. 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.

But 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 with 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 across 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. 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 percent reduction in their emissions.

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 expressed 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. 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: Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s been a leader in the US, while he was 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: 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. 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: 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. They have actually 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. 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.

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

FIGUERES: 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. 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. If you add both those two together, 49 percent of all the new energy that was installed in the United States last year - 49 percent was renewable energy. So we’re moving in the right direction.

CURWOOD: What’s the host country for the negotiation sessions 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. So I’m actually delighted to be already today working with the French presidency on this.

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 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 and how is it going to be flexible into the future, building flexibility into a legally-based framework is not an easy thing, but that is their challenge.

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. 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. 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.

[MUSIC: Sex Mob “La Strada” from Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob plays Fellini: The Music Of Nino Rota) (Royal Potato Family 2013)]

CURWOOD: You can hear more of our interview with Christiana Figueres on our website, LOE.org. Coming up...a sunny report from our in-house solar entrepreneur. That's just ahead here on Living on Earth.



More of the LOE interview with Secretary Figueres

More about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol


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