Monday, November 26, 2012

UN Climate Chief: Talks Are Making Slow, Steady Progress

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 Figuere
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. More