The COP21 Paris climate change talks resulted in a historic global pact that commits 195 nations to take concrete steps leading to permanent — yes, permanent — decarbonization. The hard-fought agreement took almost 20 years of concerted effort to culminate in victory, but that’s just the beginning of a long, difficult process. Determining exactly how those 195 nations will decarbonize is the next step, and with the impacts of climate change already upon us, speed is essential.
At Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2016* over the past couple of days, CleanTechnica caught up with one of the key players in the successful outcome of COP21, Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Figueres is also the person in charge of the intergovernmental process to convert an agreement on paper into shovels in the ground, and if anyone knows how hard that’s going to be, she’s the one.
Need For Speed, Climate Change Edition
CleanTechnica first took note of Figueres in 2014 at the United Nations Investor Summit on Climate Risk, when she had this to say about the need to accelerate investment in renewable energy:
Ignorance of climate change’s impact on investment portfolios is no longer an excuse. We need to stand up now and make the necessary shifts in capital.
This Sunday, hours before the start of Sustainability Week 2016, Figueres joined a panel discussion hosted by the Financial Times and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) under the title “Scaling Up Renewables: Taking Climate Action to the Next Level,” where she again made the case for swift action.
The panel began with a discussion of the successful transition to clean energy by the Cook Islands, which is on track to ditch its diesel generators and achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2020, partly due to the unified, enthusiastic support of its citizens and other stakeholders. As for the task ahead of the other 194 nations, Figueres warns that it’s going to be a tough row to hoe (following remarks include some minor paraphrasing):
It won’t be easy to replicate the Cook Island experience. This is not for the light of heart. This is a battle, but it is a battle that we are going to win.
Paris COP21 is not a different policy from national policy. It is national policy…for the rest of the history of mankind, it applies to all nations, from small islands to China.
Figueres emphasized that the agreement leaves each nation free to seek the most effective path to reach its carbon goals. While that may be the only realistic approach, according the Figueres the lack of uniformity presents a “difficult challenge for a capital-consistent policy.”
In other words, the climate agreement does not exactly make things easy on investors. For example, according to Figueres, currently over three dozen jurisdictions have some form of carbon pricing and/or taxation, and all of them are different.
A Message For Certain US Legislators
CleanTechnica caught up with Figueres at a small press conference on Monday, the kickoff day for Sustainability Week 2016. The event was her very first press availability after COP21 but only a handful of reporters attended, a disappointing turnout considering that approximately 3,500 had shown up barely a month earlier, on December 12, to hear the historic announcement of the COP21 climate agreement.
Monday’s underwhelming media response to the less-than-dramatic side of climate action was hardly unexpected given the shortness of the modern news cycle. To Figueres, the lack of newsworthiness was actually a sign of hope:
Paris was historical and miraculous because it took us 20 years to get there. It [climate action] should not be an isolated example, it should not be huge news. It should simply be the way we do things.
Figueres began the Q and A part of the press conference by reminding us that Paris finally succeeded because over those 20 years, many nations had already begun to restore the balance between carbon emissions and carbon absorption:
[Paris] moved from despair to hope, from animosity to collaboration, to an understanding that there is a collective responsibility to the future.
[Paris] took that which was already under way before, and put it on steroids. It’s not business as usual, it’s business as urgent.
We asked Figueres what message she would like to send to the US politicians who have been pretending that climate change is fictional, and she reminded us that “there is one politician who knows exactly what is happening,” meaning President Barack Obama, who just asked the Interior Department to review the federal government’s coal leasing program. The order effectively halts the construction of new coal mines on federal land, at least while the review is under way.
Climate change is so important to every single citizen of this world. It should no longer be an ideological issue, it should be a competitiveness issue.
It is clearly an economic issue. If the US wants to be competitive in a global decarbonized economy, it has to change.
This, honestly, is too important to be about partisan politics.
A Place In The Sun For Nuclear Energy
We were also curious what Figueres thought about the degree to which nuclear energy could help accelerate decarbonization by the near-term goalpost of 2020, given the relatively high cost and the lengthy permitting and construction issues involved.
Figueres made it clear that a nuclear program (or lack thereof) is up to each individual nation. “Paris puts that responsibility squarely back into the lap of national governments,” she said.
On the other hand, Figueres did note that nuclear energy is not a panacea for climate change. It requires a range of resources — access to capital, access to safe technology, and plenty of patience — that not all nations possess to the degree necessary.
We’re thinking that generally puts nuclear energy at a disadvantage as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall (sorry, Breakthrough), though given the presence of several large nuclear energy booths on the convention floor…
…it appears that there is still a window of opportunity for nuclear technology.
Global Action Day
Figueres will be rather busy this year, as her responsibilities after COP21 involve shepherding the creation of a “rulebook” for nations to follow when implementing their decarbonization plans, including reporting and monitoring requirements.
Meanwhile, Monday was also Global Action Day, a high-level event laying out some of the key action steps, so after Figueres’s press conference we wandered into the packed hall (more than 30,000 are attending Sustainability Week 2016) to catch some of the kickoff announcements.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave one of the keynote addresses, and he took the opportunity to call out those aforementioned US politicians:
This issue will define the 21st century. Climate action boosts the economy, creates jobs, and improves the air we breathe.
The leaders [who affirmed COP21] have set the path very clear, that the transforming of the global economy is inevitable, beneficial, and already under way.
Those that delay their decision or fail to change will be on the loser’s side of history.
You guys know who you are, so evolve, already.
All photos by Tina Casey.
*CleanTechnica is visiting Sustainability Week as a guest of Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s state-supported energy diversification company.