‘Whole economic system’ needs transformation to tackle climate says key architect of 2015 Paris deal

‘This is not a challenge that can be solved by a moment or a meeting’, Rick Saines tells Harry Cockburn

Friday 05 November 2021 01:52
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<p>Rick Saines was made a Chevalier – awarded France’s national order of merit – for his work on the 2015 Paris climate accord</p>

Rick Saines was made a Chevalier – awarded France’s national order of merit – for his work on the 2015 Paris climate accord

Following the breakthrough Paris climate deal at Cop21 in 2015, US businessman Rick Saines was awarded France’s national order of merit – making him a “Chevalier” for the role he played working with US and French officials to make the landmark summit a success.

Six years on, at Cop26 – the summit at which countries’ progress is now being scrutinised – Saines is largely optimistic that these meetings remain a crucial part of how humanity can avoid the cataclysms facing us under runaway climate change scenarios.

In the first week of the conference, he is hesitant to make any strong predictions of longer term outcomes, likening being at the conference itself to being at a sports event.

“It’s a bit like watching golf on TV,” he tells The Independent. “On TV you have someone curating every shot from every player, you’ve got the commentary and you can have a whole appreciation of what’s happening, but you don’t really understand the mood, the vibe, the energy that’s present and momentum that’s building.

“Cop is very similar. It’s a huge event with thousands of people, and it’s spread out over a vast area. You can’t be everywhere all at once. Every ten feet there’s another thing happening of potential significance.”

But he is encouraged by a greater level of awareness of the key issues among delegates at the summit, along with a keener sense of common purpose, which he says has changed in the six years since Paris.

“The commitments that are coming out – as an observer – seem to be a little different than what has maybe happened historically, in that they’re pretty specific and they’re pretty targeted,” he says.

“[Finance] is not just about a number anymore. It’s about how we are going to be deploying it in the most critical way ASAP, with this decade being the decisive decade for whether we actually create a thriving, prosperous planet – for the environment, humans and for our economy – or whether we condemn ourselves to essentially climate chaos.”

But despite this, he is not confident this summit will achieve the aim of putting us on a direct path towards keeping temperatures from going beyond 1.5C above the pre-industrial era.

“It’s really important to keep the pressure on to get the level of ambition in the NDCs (countries’ emission plans), to align with the science. It’s an absolute imperative,” he says.

“But we’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there at the end of this Cop.”

Nonetheless, he notes that the whole architecture of the Paris climate agreement is essentially “a perpetually self-improving system”.

“Every five years you check in, update, you enhance, you reflect on what needs to be done and you track where we’re being successful and where we’re not. We need to call it out when we’re not.

“But the level of ambition is still not there,” he says. “There’s still this distance between what policy makers and governments think they can achieve, versus what working together with the private sector ... can achieve.”

He lays out what he sees as the core challenges states must now rise to in order to make this summit, and every subsequent one, a success.

“Getting the private sector on board with what was happening in Paris was a pretty important series of commitments,” he says, crediting his efforts on this with being the key reason for his subsequent accolade from the French state.

“Once these solutions (from private sector involvement) start to scale up, the political opportunity to seek higher ambitions will be much more tenable to a number of countries,” he says.

“This is not a challenge that can be solved by a moment, or a declaration or a meeting - a Cop – it requires consistent changing over time, of our whole economic system.

“Much of this is going to happen anyway because of basic technological progress. Economies are creative and change and transform all the time.

“But what we need to be doing is accelerating the pace of that change and matching it to the scientific imperative. This is where the rubber hits the road.”

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