Q&A With Christiana Figueres, Outgoing UN Climate Leader

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Christiana Figueres took over the leadership of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat when the negotiation process was reeling from the dramatic collapse of the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen. From there, she shepherded the process through last year's Paris summit, which produced the world's first global climate pact. Now, the 59-year-old Costa Rica native is in the homestretch of her six-year tenure at the UNFCCC helm.

Bloomberg BNA's Eric J. Lyman interviewed Figueres more than a dozen times during her mandate and most recently on the sidelines of the current Bonn Climate Change Conference. Figueres was mum about what she will do after she steps down from her post in July—she did allow that it will be related to climate change, her “passion,” though she warned she would not be “walking the halls” of UN negotiating conferences after leaving. But she did look back on her mandate, speculate about what is to come in the negotiation process, and explain why, if he became president of the U.S., Donald Trump would find it nearly impossible to renegotiate the Paris Agreement as he has vowed to do.

The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Bloomberg BNA: Your first Conference of the Parties summit as UNFCCC executive secretary was in 2010 in Cancun, and the president of the COP was Patricia Espinosa, who will soon replace you as executive secretary. You seemed to work well together there. What is the nature of your relationship now?

Christiana Figueres: We're very good friends. We've been friends for many years. We met in the lead-up to the COP, where we were under a huge amount of pressure after what happened in Copenhagen, and we've had a friendship ever since.

Bloomberg BNA: How do you think that close relationship will affect the transition over the next months?

Figueres: The transition depends a lot on the outgoing executive secretary and what I've done is to invite Patricia to come here to Bonn this week. It'll be an informal visit, since she doesn't have an official role yet. But this way she can meet key people and get a taste for the process that she has not had a direct role in since the end of her COP presidency.

Bloomberg BNA: How important is it for the secretariat to have a good relationship with the COP presidency?

Figueres: I've been blessed along the way to have strong relationships with all the six COP presidencies during my time at the UNFCCC, starting with Patricia in Cancun and through the French presidency at COP-21 in December. It's critical. The alternative is what happened in Copenhagen.

Bloomberg BNA: You would pin some of the blame for Copenhagen's collapse on the relationship between the UNFCCC and the COP presidency?

Figueres: Let me put it this way: The secretariat is the guardian of procedures. It's the entity that makes sure the correct rules and procedures are respected. But in Copenhagen, the secretariat was sidelined, the rules and procedures were not followed, and there were big problems.

Bloomberg BNA: What advice you would give the version of yourself in 2010, at the start of your mandate, if you could?

Figueres: I think a more interesting question, Eric, is what has fundamentally changed over the last six years? And I would say there are three things that have fundamentally changed and are now irreversible. The first is the radical shift that has been made in the understanding of where drivers of change are. So, in the lead-up to Copenhagen, there was an attempt to identify what the planet needed first and then have a negotiated outcome to decide what percentage of that work would be done by whom. That proved to be not very fruitful.

But what we have now is this radical shift where we understand the driver of change is rooted in national interests and national priorities. The INDCs [Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, national plans for confronting climate change submitted to the UN last year] are an example of this, but, even more importantly, it's a conceptual shift that global needs cannot be pitted against national interests. If you put those things against each other it will not work. The trick is to create a system where the national interests are in line with what the world needs.

Bloomberg BNA: And the other two things?

Figueres: The second is that it has finally been understood that this transition that was needed is not only the responsibility of central governments, which is the approach from six years ago. Now we understand that this is a responsibility—and also an opportunity—for all sectors of society, for government, but also for the private sector and all parts of the private sector—corporations, financial institutions, insurance companies, civil society, in all sectors, transportation, energy, and on and on. Remember that the “p-word,” the private sector, was nowhere to be found leading up to Copenhagen, because the private sector was deliberately being held out.

And the third piece I think is fundamental, and it's something I said many times when I inherited this process: The global mood when it comes to climate change was in the trash. But now I think we have a very good global mood when it comes to climate change. I think we know now that we're all better off collaborating and cooperating with each other rather than confronting and blaming each other.

Bloomberg BNA: Let me follow up on number three. There's no doubt that there's much more of a spirit of cooperation now, and in the lead-up to Paris, than there was in the wake of Copenhagen. But despite that, countries don't seem to be willing to take the steps necessary based on the science. More than 180 countries submitted INDCs, for example, but the science tells us those pledges will leave the world far short of limited global warming within 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] as agreed to in Paris. Why is there a disconnect between what needs to be done and what is being done? And how can it be resolved?

Figueres: What is in the Paris Agreement is not visible to anyone yet. It is visible in our heads, but it is not visible in the economy, in the policies that we have. We tend to oscillate between what we know we have to do on one extreme and what is possible right now—and I think that's very human.

The important thing is that we have a vision and we know we have to make it possible. And over time, we will figure out how to do it. It's not any different from a person, who, on a personal level, says, “OK, I'm going to lose 20 pounds of weight.” But most likely that person isn't always on his diet and he doesn't always do his exercise. But that doesn't mean he's given up on the target. It's important to watch the trend and the trend is very, very clear.

Bloomberg BNA: It's interesting that you chose the example of someone deciding to lose 20 pounds of weight, because when people ask me about the Paris Agreement, that's similar to the example I use. I tell them it's like a person who decides to get into shape and the Paris Agreement is the equivalent of buying a gym membership and some new workout clothes. Those are probably necessary first steps, but the work is all yet to come.

Figueres: That's right. It's a good analogy, because the person still needs to go to the gym after that. The Paris Agreement is a clear statement of intent. It's a good plan, but it does need to be made real. Life needs to be blown into it. But the analogy can only be taken so far. Yes, the 20 pounds, or whatever the goal is, is important, but ultimately it is only a proxy for what is happening. The real purpose of the person who decides to lose 20 pounds isn't really that weight loss. That goal is a proxy for being healthier, for improving the quality of life.

When it comes to climate change, we measure our success by counting greenhouse gas concentrations or emissions levels, and it's correct to do that. But those are proxies for protecting the well-being of the world's population. That's the ultimate goal.

Bloomberg BNA: Many say the changes are not coming fast enough for that. But it sounds like you are hopeful. Is it fair to take from what you said that you are optimistic?

Figueres: Absolutely. I have no doubt we'll get there, in part because the three big changes I mentioned earlier are irreversible. When you look at the big picture, we're only a little more than 15 years into the new century. This new spirit of collaboration and cooperation, particularly in putting the human being at the center of policy, is clearly where we're going to go and it's going to go way beyond climate change. I've said for a long time that what happens in this area is just a testing ground for what we'll see when it comes to global governance and global decision making in this century. It's already happening.

Bloomberg BNA: I'd like to ask you about Donald Trump, who said if he becomes U.S. president he wants to renegotiate the Paris Agreement. I'm not going to ask what you think of that idea, since I know you well enough to know what you'll say about it. But there's a more basic question about his view: Is it even possible to renegotiate the Paris Agreement? (Figueres smiles and shakes her head no). So, you say no. But why not? What is the mechanism that would prevent that?

Figueres: Well, it's not a mechanism. First, you'd have to get support from U.S. citizens for that and I doubt that would happen. There are just too many benefits for the United States.

But if you did it, that would be the easy part. Because then you'd have to get 195 other countries back at the negotiating table with a willingness to renegotiate and from someone who was involved the first time, I can only say, good luck with that.