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UNFCCC executive secretary on COP 18 outcome

Q: How did you get to the role you are in today and what advice would you give aspiring climate champions?
Christiana Figueres: I have been involved in climate change since 1995.  I started working as the head of an NGO that sought to raise the awareness and provide technical capacity to Latin American governments to actively participate in the UNFCCC negotiations.  At the same time I was asked to join the Costa Rican government delegation to the UNFCCC.  Finally I also provided strategic support to major Latin American corporations wishing to be active in the in the climate change space. I was thus able to develop an integrated perspective from the NGO, government and private sector point of views.  There is no doubt that all three need to contribute to the solution, and mutually reinforcing efforts are the ideal approach.  Having grown up in a developing country but lived in many other countries, including several industrialised countries, I have had direct access to a diversity of geopolitical views.  In 2010, the Costa Rican government nominated me as a candidate for the post of Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.  I competed against 11 other candidates from all parts of the world. The final decision was taken by the Secretary General of the UN.
My advice to aspiring climate champions is this – be informed. Learn science, math, politics, policy and economics. Challenge perceived notions of what is possible and what is not. Stand firmly in reality but be powerfully motivated by possibility. It is the balance of the two that can make a difference.
Q: In your opinion, what were the key achievements of COP 18?
A: A key achievement of COP 18 was the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. This means that the important accounting and environmental rules of the only existing international, legally-binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are preserved. Significant groundwork was laid for the universal 2015 agreement that will enter into force in 2020. At the same time, governments agreed to work intensively to find ways to curb emissions before 2020, which is crucial for the world to be able to stay below the agreed maximum 2°C temperature rise. And governments made good progress on ensuring that the financial and technological support for developing countries can be delivered, via the Green Climate Fund and Technology Mechanism. Much work remains to be done, but the conference achieved what it set out to do. Now it is a matter of accelerating the pace of climate action on the part of governments and by all of society.
Q: Doha saw the term ‘loss and damage from climate change’ enshrined in the UNFCCC for the first time. What are the implications of this and how should the loss and damage agenda be advanced in the coming years?
A: Loss and damage refers to the effects of climate change which occur in an incremental manner over a long period of time, such as rise in sea levels. All countries will be affected in some way or another, but loss and damage incurred by developing countries must be dealt with in a special way, given that these countries do not have the same capacity or financial resources as developed countries. This is particularly important for the poorest and most vulnerable. For example, low-lying pacific island nations may well need to relocate entire populations because of rising sea levels. A loss and damage mechanism can provide an important framework to deal in a predictable and structured manner with challenges like this. Exactly how the loss and damage agenda will be advanced remains to be seen, but the issue is now firmly on the radar screen of the international community, and that was an important result of Doha.
Q: One proposal that was put forward at COP 18 was the introduction of majority voting into the Conference of the Parties as a way to put an end to stalled negotiations and lowest common denominator commitments. Do you think we will see support for this proposal at COP 19?
A: The interest in having a voting rule has been actively considered for several years.  I fully understand the frustration caused by the lack of such a rule and the reasoning behind this proposal, but it is unlikely we will see broad support for this at COP 19 or at future conferences, for the simple reason that Parties would need consensus in order for them to introduce any voting rule. Furthermore, the UN process is based on a commitment to make all voices heard. Developing consensus does take longer and lead to the impression that the process is “stalled”. However, consensus-based decision-making results in mutually acceptable solutions and decisions which have broad international buy-in. The goal is to find and implement win-win solutions, and we are seeing many opportunities opening up and countries increasingly moving from the politics of blame and to the politics of opportunity.
Q: The world has changed enormously since the UNFCCC was negotiated in 1992, yet the classification of developed and developing countries has remained the same and many countries are determined to hang onto their developing country status whether it still applies or not. Can we realistically expect Parties to put aside these distinctions to negotiate a universal treaty by 2015?
A: The world has indeed changed since the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992. Many developing countries have witnessed enormous growth and have managed to lift large parts of their populations out of poverty. But in some ways, the classifications still apply. Developing countries with significant parts of their populations still living below the poverty line have a right to develop, to improve the quality of life for all their people. The challenge as we move towards 2015 is not so much rooted in the classifications, as it is rooted in the need for all countries to move towards sustainable development. Developing countries have a unique opportunity and interest to shift away from building polluting, fossil fuels-based infrastructure and towards clean, renewable energy – it gives them a competitive edge, reduces expensive oil imports and prevents air pollution. Developed countries also have an intrinsic interest to transform their economies – it is simply good economics – and it must happen soon.
Q: What should be the main priorities for COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland?
A: I’m looking forward to the upcoming COP 19 in Poland. This COP will be the first of two conferences that will take crucial steps towards the universal 2015 agreement, while raising immediate ambition to curb greenhouse gases. We are at a pivotal moment in history – we can no longer ignore the devastating effects of climate change, which is manifesting itself around the world in more frequent and more extreme weather events. But this is also a moment of opportunity, with clean technology becoming cheaper and more easily available, allowing governments to be more courageous. The science tells us that emissions must peak this decade and decline rapidly thereafter, and I sense a growing willingness on the part of the governments to grasp the problem by the horns. By the time we meet for COP 19, governments will have had time to examine and strengthen their domestic policies and look at ways they can increase ambition at the national level, which can then feed into the international negotiations. The shape of the 2015 framework will emerge as we progress, and at the same time countries have the continuing opportunity and duty to provide support that developing countries need to curb emissions and adapt to climate change.
Favourite quote: “Impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude”.  Anonymous.
(Source: OUTREACH on climate change and sustainable development)


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