Q-&-A With Patricia Espinosa, UN's New Climate Chief

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Patricia Espinosa’s appointment as the fifth executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—the UN’s top climate change body—is finally official. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tabbed the 57-year-old, who was Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs for six years ending in 2012, to replace Christiana Figueres at the post May 3, but the appointment only became official May 18 with the approval of the Conference of the Parties Bureau, a UNFCCC oversight body (39 INER 605, 5/4/16). That happened May 19.

To climate negotiation veterans, Espinosa was already a well-regarded figure. She was president of the 16th Conference of the Parties summit in 2010 that helped resurrect the negotiation process after the Copenhagen climate summit collapsed a year earlier.

Now Espinosa, who will step down from her current post as Mexico’s ambassador to Germany, and in July take the helm of the UN’s climate change secretariat in the wake of last December’s summit that produced the Paris Agreement, the world’s first global climate pact. Her task will be to help shepherd the process through ratification and entry into force, while urging countries to take on stronger commitments than those they volunteered to take on last year.

Espinosa spoke to Bloomberg BNA’s Eric J. Lyman about the array of the challenges ahead of her, in an interview that took place just hours after the COP Bureau confirmed her appointment.

The interview was translated from Spanish and edited for clarity and brevity.

Bloomberg BNA:

This position has got to be one of the most difficult and thankless positions in the United Nations system. What made you seek out the job?

Patricia Espinosa:

This is a theme that is at the center of almost any international issue related to development, the environment, the economy—almost anything that moves the human race forward.

These are areas I had experience with when I was secretary of foreign affairs and I know the stakes are even higher now. I feel the experience I’ve had in my life has put me into a position that I can be of help in confronting these important issues.

Bloomberg BNA:

You worked together with Christiana Figueres before. She had just taken over the leadership of the UNFCCC before COP-16, where you were the president. How will that familiarity impact the transition?

Espinosa:

Christiana’s a friend and that makes it easier in some ways. We worked together during a very intense period in connection with the Cancun summit.

But the transition is pretty set. She will step down July 6 or 7, and I’ll leave my post as ambassador July 18 and start work in Bonn after that. Christiana is doing what she can to ease the transition. She invited me to Bonn next week so I can start to meet staff, and in July she will start briefing me in key areas. I’m sure she’ll also be available to me for counsel even after she leaves the job.

Bloomberg BNA:

Once you take over, what will be your immediate priorities?

Espinosa:

I think there are three key areas we need to focus on right away.

First, we have to work to implement the terms of the Paris Agreement. Then we need work on actions to take before the Paris Agreement enters into force in 2020. And, thirdly, we need to develop new synergies between the climate change agenda and worldwide development goals for 2030.

Bloomberg BNA:

The UNFCCC is now more than 20 years old and its role has evolved significantly over that time. How do you see it evolving during your tenure?

Espinosa:

Yes, I do think things will continue to evolve. Christiana did an extraordinary job to make the UNFCCC an actor that reaches far wider, touching on more areas than had been the case before. Now we need to focus on the Paris Agreement and we need to explore the ways that the secretariat can work to facilitate that.

It’s too early for me to speak about that in specific terms. I haven’t even started work yet. But I can say the wide-reaching Paris Agreement has created a lot of homework for us, and I think the UNFCCC has to adjust to that so it can be as effective as possible.

Bloomberg BNA:

The biggest point on the calendar between today and 2020, when the Paris Agreement enters into force, is in 2018, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its report on pathways to the climate goals from the Paris Agreement and countries are expected to assess the climate goals they’ve taken and, according to plans, make them more ambitious. What will you want to see the UNFCCC do to make that those changes effective?

Espinosa:

Well, what the Paris Agreement calls for is a balanced approach between emissions reductions and other issues like helping poorer countries along their development pathways, the transfer of technology, building capacity and so on. I think that in order to make 2018 effective we need to focus on these things now. I think those things will help create the right incentives.

Bloomberg BNA:

Do you think the goal from the Paris Agreement to keep rising temperatures to within 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius [compared to pre-industrial levels] is still within our reach?

Espinosa:

That’s not a determination I can make. But the scientists, the experts in this area, they tell us that, yes, it’s still possible, but it will be very, very difficult. That’s why we must act quickly.

Bloomberg BNA:

How important is it that you come from a developing country? Is it relevant?

Espinosa:

Yes, I think it is. I understand the reality of the developing countries of the world. In particular, Mexico is a developing country, but we also know there are many Mexicos, many realities within the same country. In a way, it’s like many countries at once, which will be very relevant in this new role.

Bloomberg BNA:

For anyone who started to follow the climate negotiation process since COP-16 in 2010, you are a new face. What would you like those people to know about you?

Espinosa:

Well, all I can say at this point is that I promise to use all the capabilities I have, all the energy I have, to help confront the enormous challenge of climate change. I need the support of delegations, environmentalists and observers, and I will work as hard as possible to earn their vote of confidence.