When Christiana Figueres took on the leadership of the UN 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 US business holds the Trump card in American climate policy, and why victory always goes hand-in-hand with optimism.
BusinessGreen: 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 other big transformation, my number two choice, is that there was a realisation 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.
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?
It is important to move quite quickly on that, because we don’t want the Paris Agreement to be only a hard labour 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.
You said last month the conversation between business and government now needs to deepen into collaboration – could you explain what you mean by that?
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, in as much 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.