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Departing U.N. climate chief on Paris, Trump and aiming high


When Christiana Figueres took on the leadership of the United Nations secretariat on climate change, the diplomatic collapse of the Copenhagen Summit was fresh in everyone’s minds.

Now, just over six years later, she prepares to leave office riding high on a wave of global enthusiasm following the first global agreement on climate change.

BusinessGreen caught up with Figueres to look back on the remarkable transformation that has swept through the global climate movement — discussing her role as a “gardener” for climate action, why U.S. business holds the Trump card in American climate policy, and why victory always goes hand-in-hand with optimism.

Madeleine Cuff: Looking back from when you took on this post just after Copenhagen to where we are now, what has changed in the global attitudes to climate change?

Christiana Figueres: I think there is a remarkable turnaround in the global attitude over the past six years. As we remember we were all deeply disappointed by Copenhagen. As I have said before, I think the whole world was in a bad mood about climate change, having reached a conclusion that it was too expensive, too complex, too confrontational, and some had even decided it was too late anyway.

So I think over the past six years what has happened is that there is a remarkable turnaround in the global mood. Certainly the fact that clean energy technologies have come down in cost was a huge opening. But beyond that I would say there were three major transformations that occurred slowly but surely between 2010 and 2015.

The first is to understand that yes, definitely there is historical responsibility, there is no doubting that. That is not ideology, that is a fact, and that will remain there. But in addition to historical responsibility, I think there is an awareness now that all countries share, in a very differentiated fashion, a responsibility for the future. The sharing of the responsibility toward the future I think is a huge attitudinal leap that was developed slowly and surely over time.

The other big transformation, my No. 2 choice, is that there was a realization that this is not just the responsibility of central or national governments, but actually a shared responsibility that goes beyond central governments: There’s sub-national governments; there’s certainly the corporate sector that needs to take on responsibility here; the finance sector. In fact, there’s barely a sector that doesn’t need to contribute to the solution.

And based on those two changes, what was really remarkable was the fact that addressing climate change moved slowly but surely from being a burden to being an opportunity. Countries have now seen how they can actually implement a national version of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through their pursuit of climate goals, and vice versa. And I think that is very important to understand, that we will only pursue climate goals through the national pursuit of the SDGs.

To be able to understand that this is actually a huge developmental opportunity was a major, major change and allowed for a very different attitude — one that admits that we don’t know exactly how we are going to get to the targets that are embedded in the Paris Agreement, but that everybody is willing to have a “moonshot attitude” to say, “We are going to do this; we do have to transform.”

And admittedly we don’t exactly know how we are going to do that, but we are going to do it. So it’s very much about this moonshot attitude, which is very, very different from where we were in Copenhagen.

Cuff: You’ve spoken before about your drive to add a sense of optimism to the climate debate post-Copenhagen. Given your experience of trying to rebuild momentum after that conference, is there anything we can learn about maintaining the momentum post-Paris?

Figueres: It is important to move quite quickly on that, because we don’t want the Paris Agreement to be only a hard labor and a well-balanced document. We don’t want it to be only a document. We want it to be vision, yes, but it needs to be very quickly followed by constructing the reality behind that vision.

I think the lead-up to Paris and the construction of all of the very important coalitions is absolutely key. Countries working together, collaborating and helping each other out was a lesson in the lead-up to Paris and has to be the bedrock of moving forward now.

Whether it is countries or national governments helping each other out, or whether that be a collaboration between public and private sector, or between national and sub-national governments. In whatever iteration you want to see it, I think collaboration was key toward Paris and is absolutely fundamental in a post-Paris world.

Cuff: You said last month the conversation between business and government now needs to deepen into collaboration — could you explain what you mean by that?

Figueres: It’s clear that businesses are already taking on their responsibility because they do see it as an opportunity, and many of them are beginning to align themselves with these science-based targets, targets that are embedded in the Paris Agreement, so many of them are moving in that direction. But it’s also very clear that they will be facilitated and enabled in that movement, inasmuch as governments do put climate-friendly policies in place.

The very clear link between an enabling policy environment and capital shifts and development of technology has always been there. It’s nothing new — we’ve known for years that it exists, but it is now absolutely transcendental and needs to occur quite quickly.

Cuff: What would you say about encouraging those businesses that maybe aren’t leading on the climate agenda?

Figueres: In any kind of change, no matter what it is, there always is a distribution curve of those who start early — the leaders — which there are always a few, then there is a larger middle of followers or earlier movers, and there always are some at the back end of the curve that find it more difficult to move.

That is a reality, you see it in any social or economic change, so I wouldn’t expect this to be any different.

However, it is clear that because we are moving towards a high resilience and decarbonized economy that those who move with the times and in the direction in which society and the economy is moving, they will benefit from that, because the policy and financial infrastructure will be increasingly aligning itself toward this. And so to fight it is in nobody’s interest. So I’m actually quite encouraged by the number of companies who were very supportive of the Paris Agreement last year, and who are moving very quickly this year towards their own transformation.

Cuff: In light of that, the recent shareholder action at a number of oil majors threw into sharp relief the companies which are moving fast to change their business models and those which are moving slower, if at all.

Figueres: Yes. I mean, there’s a very normal and predictable distribution curve there also, so not surprising. But I am really quite impressed with, for example, two oil majors — one privately held, Total, and one government-held, Saudi Aramco — both of which have taken this very seriously, are taking a look at how they are going to be evolving their business model. They are going in different directions, which makes sense to each individually, but both of them are very much taking to heart the future of energy companies in this century and taking a leadership role and showing how it could be done.

Cuff: You’ve said the next five years are very important for setting the pathway for the future in terms of this transition. How you would like the world to have changed in 2020? What changes would you like to have seen happen by that point?

Figueres: Well, I do think that by that point we have to have a much healthier mix in the energy system, much more dependent and rooted in renewable energy than we are now. I am assuming that we are also going to see quite a bit of transformation in the mobility and transportation sector — there’s many different avenues, but certainly moving towards zero emission vehicles, and much more effective and preponderant public transportation systems.

So both the generation of energy will be moving quite quickly I believe, as well as the transportation sector which is very energy dependent.

In developing countries the energy sector will advance quite rapidly, because it has the greatest demand for energy. And you do see quite a few examples of developing countries, such as Egypt or Morocco to just name two in Africa, who have realized that their energy independence and their energy stability, and in fact the predictability of the cost of energy, is so much greater when they invest into their own local sources of energy.

Cuff: What are the potential stumbling blocks that could impede the successful implementation of the Paris Treaty and the realization of this vision?

Figueres: Because we are really working against the clock here, there really is a speed that needs to occur before we reach concentrations in the atmosphere that would be very detrimental, if not a dangerous tipping point. So because we are dealing here not just with a transition but actually a transition within a relatively short period of time, I think the factor that is going to affect most the success of this transition is actually finance.

How will we be able to move, or transition, financial flows into renewable energies and other clean technologies as quickly as need be? And that, of course, is related to the absorptive capacity that, particularly developing countries, are developing in order to be absorb those financial flows. So that combination of the shift in financial flows but also the absorptive capacity in developing countries — I think those are the two that need most of our attention.

Cuff: Are you concerned that if [presumptive Republican nominee] Donald Trump did become president it would initiate a domino effect among other countries, or do you think that type of political risk is less pressing?

Figueres: Well there’s never anything that you do at a global level that doesn’t have political risk. So there’s always political risk, this being one and obviously we will see many more political risks, so let’s put it into perspective.

But as has been already quite broadly covered in the press over the past few weeks, there’s no way that the United States could under any circumstance unilaterally cancel the Paris Agreement, because this was not a unilateral decision, this is a treaty that has been adopted by 196 countries.

So renegotiating that cannot be done unilaterally — you would need all countries to be in agreement that they would all sit around the table again and renegotiate. And frankly, having accompanied this process for 21 years, I can guarantee that that is just not going to occur very easily. So that’s one piece.

Of course the U.S. could unilaterally remove itself from the Paris Agreement, but I also don’t think that that is going to happen, for two reasons.

One is that it would have a huge detrimental effect on the political standing of the United States internationally, but perhaps even more importantly I just don’t think U.S. business would allow that, because U.S. business has seen that this is actually a very interesting opportunity for U.S. technologies and U.S. skills, technical and otherwise, to be invested in and to be used around the world.

And there is so much to be gained here by the United States but also by other countries, that it would shoot U.S. business in the foot to remove itself from what is now an unstoppable global process.

Cuff: Obviously the major discussion happening in the U.K. at the moment is around Brexit — many environmentalists fear a British exit from the EU would weaken our international standing in climate negotiations. What’s your take on this fear?

Figueres: There again, to change now the structure of the agreement would be very complicated and should Brexit go ahead, then the U.K. would have to re-position itself within a structure that has already been very carefully balanced and planned out — so it does raise many more questions than it answers.

Cuff: And if the U.K. came to the negotiating table as a single entity rather than as a leading country within the EU, how would that affect the dynamics of future negotiations?

Figueres: Well, that’s what I mean. I mean, the U.K. would have to re-calibrate into something that has already been settled. And it wasn’t settled overnight; this has been a very careful planning process for many years. So as I say, it raises many more questions than can be answered now, and certainly more questions than answers.

Cuff: You’ve said previously that Paris is a testing ground for new types of global governance and decision making. What do you think we can learn from the way in which we have approached the issue of climate change to apply to other global challenges?

Figueres: I do think there’s a couple of things that can be learned. The first very critical point is to understand that we are increasingly interconnected, certainly by technology and the internet, but beyond being interconnected we are interdependent, and we are increasingly interdependent of each other. So the fate of one country is actually not just the fate of that country; it has immediate ripple effects over everyone else. We are already very interdependent and will become more so.

So that’s very important to understand that actually we are all in these challenges together and we are better off collaborating and helping each other and strengthening each other, rather than doing the opposite. So I think global collaboration is very much at the root of the climate process, and one that can inspire us for other challenges that are out there — such as forced migration, energy security, food security — all of these issues that are actually global issues that have a global impact, rather than only a national impact.

The other one, even if it may seem somewhat light-hearted, is I think it is very important to go at these challenges with a positive mindset. I have never seen a victory delivered without optimism, and I think it is important to enter into this space, admittedly not knowing what the solutions are, but certainly with an attitude that the issues that are before us are issues that humans have occasioned, and therefore the solutions have to be in our hands. And that if we work together we are entirely capable of coming up with collective wisdom and collective leadership to be able to face these issues.

So I do think that we need a little more constructive approach. And that is not to be “Pollyanna” about it, because we do have many issues that are hugely impacting us negatively, but I just think that the attitude needs to be one of openness and collaboration.

Cuff: Optimism is something you are somewhat famed for. Coming up to the six month mark since the Paris Agreement was reached, are you optimistic about what has happened since the summit?

Figueres: I feel very optimistic. We just finished 10 days of the first sessions here in Bonn to follow up after Paris and what was quite wonderful to see was the general enthusiasm of everyone keen to actually roll up their sleeves and get things done. If anything the challenge here was how to orchestrate as much enthusiasm and as much commitment as we saw.

It’s a very different attitude to what we had a few years ago, when it was difficult to get anyone even thinking constructively and positively on these issues. We had to fertilize the ground and now the ground is very fertile, and is sprouting many seeds. And now the challenge is — like that of a good gardener — to continue to water those seeds and ensure that it will continue to grow. But there are thousands of flowers blooming.

Cuff: And what do you see as the main challenges that need to be ironed out in Marrakesh in November?

Figueres: Interestingly enough, I think the orchestration of all of this non-state action, non-party action, is actually one of the challenges of how all of this is going to be moving forward. The other I think will be clarity related to the first of action moving forward.

The other challenge is further clarity on the financial flows that are going to be occurring to support this commitment and this enthusiasm. But that commitment and enthusiasm does not make a change until it’s actually financed. So you can’t build anything that is not financed. So financing, I think, is going to be at the heart of Marrakesh.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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