The 'stars are aligning' ahead of 'most important environmental summit in history', says UN climate change chief

Exclusive: Christiana Figueres confident meeting will hit its ambitious target

Tom Bawden@BawdenTom
Friday 17 July 2015 16:37
Christiana Figueres is increasingly confident that difficulties in tackling climate change will be overcome
Christiana Figueres is increasingly confident that difficulties in tackling climate change will be overcome

The most important environmental meeting in history is on course to decisively tackle climate change as an “unstoppable and irreversible” momentum builds to “green the planet”, the United Nations climate change chief has told The Independent.

Christiana Figueres says she is confident that December’s UN summit in Paris – regarded as the most important so far – will deliver its ambitious target to agree on action drastic enough to limit global warming to 2C. Beyond this level, the consequences of climate change become increasingly devastating.

“The stars are aligning towards a Paris agreement that will establish a pathway that keeps us within the limit of 2C,” Ms Figueres said.

“What is unique here is that everyone is realising that this truly is a very, very urgent moment in the history of addressing climate change. That this is a moment we cannot afford to miss.

“And because everybody is mobilised in the same direction, we actually have a very good chance of doing something meaningful.”

As executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the international body charged with tackling global warming, Ms Figueres will be in charge of the Paris negotiations and the crucial rounds of discussions preceding them.

The target world leaders have set the summit will require countries to make ambitious and legally binding cuts to their carbon emissions. And the negotiations will be made much harder by the political difficulty of getting nearly 200 governments to agree a highly complex and potentially contentious treaty in which the scale of the emissions cuts will vary significantly between countries.

One particular bone of contention lies in the way the developed countries – which are historically responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions – share the burden of emissions cuts with the developing countries, which these days are responsible for the growing majority of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.

But Ms Figueres is increasingly confident that these difficulties will be overcome. “I would be hard-pressed to find one sector that is not moving forward with communication that is so much better than we had in the past and, even more importantly, with carbon reduction commitments themselves,” she said.

“Whether you look at the investment community, the insurance community, cities, territories, states or companies – it really is quite impressive to see the unending procession of commitment and action underway. It is unstoppable, it is irreversible. What Paris is going to do is to confirm that pathway and give it a legal basis,” Ms Figueres said.

“Frankly what is coming into focus here is the kaleidoscope of all of the different facets that climate change actually covers and each of those facets is finding its voice and become louder and louder for an orchestrated solution,” she added.

Despite her growing confidence, Ms Figueres said a huge amount still needs to be done to ensure a successful outcome in Paris – with by far the biggest obstacle being how countries will finance the move to a low-carbon global economy.

Other leading players in the climate change discussions are also confident that a positive result for tackling climate change can be achieved in Paris.

“I see evidence from around the world and from all sectors that the tide is at last turning, with a groundswell of action both to limit and prepare for climate change and its impacts,” said Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London.

“The transformation is taking place in the public, private and civil sectors as savvy individuals and institutions turn their minds, skills and efforts to transform the world to a zero carbon state,” added Professor Rapley, who co-wrote and performed 2071 – a monologue set in the future about the dangers of climate change at the Royal Court theatre in London last year.
Professor Rapley said it was “significant” that after decades of roughly 2 per cent growth in annual carbon emissions, the level flattened last year despite a 3 per cent rise in the global economy and a 1.5 per cent increase in energy use.

Lord Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Institute and the world’s most influential climate economist, cautioned that much work still needs to be done to ensure a successful outcome in Paris – and afterwards. “Hard work is required over the next few months by all countries to find credible ways of achieving bigger emissions reductions.

“There should be an intensification of effort to increase investment and innovation, particularly in relation to the development of cities, energy systems and land use,” he said, adding: “The ambitions and plans at the Paris summit should be regarded as a critical initial step.”

The chief executive of Friends of the Earth, Craig Bennett, was less confident that the world can limit global warming to 2C. “We are gravely concerned that the level of action being promised will breach two degrees – let alone the safer 1.5C. The planet and climate don’t negotiate. A deal at any cost – that has neither urgency or ambition – will be viewed as a failure,” he said.

Ambitious – What’s needed

All 196 countries taking part will need to agree to make ambitious and legally binding cuts to carbon emissions. Failure to limit temperature rises to less than 2C now will make it difficult to achieve later.

Poor countries want rich ones to pay to help them invest in clean technology. But rich countries say this shouldn’t come from the public purse but institutions such as the World Bank.

Countries must agree to revise commitments every five years as technology advances and governments prioritise low-carbon development.

Plans to tackle deforestation and protect ecosystems will be a crucial part of any new agreement.

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