Figueres warns world is “running out of time” to agree climate treaty

UN climate chief confident political will is growing to cut global carbon emissions, but warns of tough challenges ahead in 2014

(Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

(Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)


By Ed King

A draft text for a global climate change treaty set to be agreed in 2015 will be presented to governments as early as November this year, according to the UN official in charge of negotiations.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) expects work on what is guaranteed to be a controversial deal to start in little over 12 weeks time, giving diplomats seven months to flesh out proposals before the main climate summit of 2014 opens in Lima on December 1.

“In March we will have a session of the Durban Platform [2015 deal talks] that will begin to look at what is the content of the agreement of 2015 going to be, and will be preparation for the draft agreement that will be out on the table as governments go to Lima, so not as a result of Lima but as they go to Lima,” she told RTCC in an interview.

The pressure is starting to mount for a process that is designed to avert dangerous levels of global warming, but has so far not managed to deliver anything close to the level of greenhouse gas emission cuts needed to do that.

A UN climate science report released last September warned of rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps and increases in extreme weather events if urgent action is not taken within the next decade.

Major polluters like the USA and China are talking a good game, but it’s still unclear if world leaders have the political will to accept tough emission cuts. Figueres says the scientific evidence suggests they have little choice.

“Not coming to an agreement is unacceptable – there’s just no way,” she says. “We don’t have the option of not coming to an agreement, and frankly we don’t have an option of not coming to an agreement that is meaningful.”

Ban influence

The litmus test for how well negotiations are faring will take place this September in New York, where Ban Ki-moon is set to host national, business and civil society leaders for a ‘Climate Summit’ ahead of the 2014 General Assembly.

Ban appointed John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, and Jens Stoltenberg, former Prime Minister of Norway as his climate envoys ahead of Christmas, and called for the gathering to be filled with “bold announcements and action.”

Those countries that can are already being asked to consider revealing their emission reduction and financial pledges for the 2015 treaty ahead of Ban’s meeting. Ban’s team are also asking businesses and civil society what they can offer in terms of assistance or commitments.

Figueres stresses the meeting will not be a formal part of the UNFCCC negotiations, but says Ban’s ability to coax “political delivery” out of leaders will be important, and hopes those attending will feel able to “offer solutions”.

“2014 is critical, we expect countries to be doing their homework,” she says. “That’s the domestic analysis that each country needs to do to determine what is the highest contribution they can make to the global effort that they will make public through 2014, and some in 2015.”

Finance drought

Funding for low carbon growth remains a concern. While a recent meeting in Warsaw did see increased flows of funds for forests, adaptation and the Least Developed Countries, the wider picture remains bleak.

Research from the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) showed 2013 climate finance pledges were 71% lower than the previous year, way off the $100 billion a year rich nations have pledged to deliver by 2020.

The Green Climate Fund, which is set to open its doors to investors in May 2014, will have a role in changing that situation. So will private sector investors, who Figueres sees as a valued ally.

“It is these asset managers and asset owners that can truly make a difference in where substantial capital is going to flow over the next 10-20 years”, she says, adding that the “business continuity implications of climate are becoming clearer … the risks of stranded assets and low return are becoming more evident.”

Illustrating the UN’s commitment to engaging with business, Figueres points to an investor’s summit with 500 global financial leaders in New York she will attend on January 15, followed by the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of the month, where a full day is being dedicated to climate change.

Neither are likely to deliver the estimated $1 trillion per year needed to be invested in clean energy through 2050, but they may provide momentum to a process that rarely seems too bothered by the dire predictions from concerned climate scientists.

“We’re running out of time…we have to get to zero net emissions by the second half of this century, and in order to put us on a path to do that we have to reverse the trajectory of GHG emissions that we have now,” Figueres says.

Time management

She maintains it’s the “advance of technology that will allow us to do more with less emissions and energy”, citing the role the Information and communications technology (ICT) sector could have in cutting emissions by 16%.

In 2013 Facebook and Google both launched data centres powered by renewables, but these are tiny contributions compared to what campaigners like Canadian author Naomi Klein and British scientist Kevin Anderson say need to be “radical” efforts.

This lack of urgency and ambition at UN climate talks was a determining factor in the decision of many green and youth groups to walk out of last November’s UN climate summit in Warsaw in protest.

Civil society leaders accused some countries of trying to “drag the process backwards”, others like’s Hoda Baraka said lobbying from the fossil fuel industry was obstructing progress.

While the UNFCCC chief maintains the meeting was “very productive”, citing progress on the roadmap to Paris, loss and damage and forests, she says she understands why leading NGOs like Greenpeace, WWF and Oxfam disagree.

“The walkout is evidence of frustration that the process is not moving at the speed and scale … I share the frustration and many parties share it as well,” she says.

“I have also said the important role that NGOs can play is not necessarily at a COP [annual summit] once everyone arrives there with their positions and analysis done but rather for them to exercise the strengths of their influence at home with governments.”

Ambition appears to be stirring among some world leaders. The USA and China have announced new climate strategies in the last year.

Europe is expected to release its 2030 climate targets at the end of January. Australian climate groups hope prime minister Tony Abbott may yet look at the thermometer and adopt tougher climate policies.

For her part Figueres says she is keen to push the issue “beyond institutions” like governments, the OECD, IMF, World Bank and the UNFCCC. She wants to make it personal.

“Every single one of us needs to be part of that team. None of us are exempted from responsibility, all of us can contribute,” she says.

“This needs to be a movement forward that is constructed by everybody, not just by institutions, not just be government, not just by corporations. The team is a seven billion man and woman team.”

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