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Christiana Figueres: if we fail on climate, we fail on human rights, education and health

The former UN climate chief and veteran negotiator explains why building trust is vital for timely climate action.

By Philippa Nuttall

If there is a queen of climate action, it is Christiana Figueres. Best known as one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the 65-year-old Costa Rican diplomat is currently the co-founder and head of Global Optimism, an organisation pushing climate action by working with other organisations, including companies that other activists would prefer to avoid. 

Many campaigners were furious about the inclusion of fossil fuel companies at Cop26. Greta Thunberg called the Glasgow summit a “two-week long celebration of business as usual”. But the sobering truth is that despite significant growth in renewable energies, such as solar and wind, fossil fuels still account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s energy production. A successful transition to a clean energy economy would therefore seem to imply allowing fossil fuel companies to have a seat at the table. Figueres favours collaboration. She interviewed the Shell CEO, Ben van Beurden, on the Outrage and Optimism podcast she co-hosts, and was on a panel with van Beurden in the lead-up to Cop26 when Scottish climate campaigner Lauren MacDonald stormed the stage to take him to task over the climate crisis.

Figueres understands the anger. “Fossil fuel industries, especially coal but also increasingly oil and gas, are losing social licence very quickly as society has huge transformational expectations for them, and young people don’t want to sell their brains to them,” Figueres told me from a hotel room in Spain. “But they [are] also losing financial licence. Increasingly, financial institutions and insurance companies do not want to lend, invest or offer insurance to these companies as they see them as toxic or stranded assets that are losing their value.

“In the middle of this loss of social and financial licence, it is important to give a voice to the leaders of these companies and have them report to the public about what are they doing. They are some of the largest companies in the world, they have deep pockets, they have deep engineering skills, they have to switch over to a new economy, and we would all be better off the faster they switch over.”

[Hear also: What it will take to tackle climate change, with Christiana Figueres]

Figueres is clear that engaging doesn’t mean giving in. “We have to continue to pressure them; social pressure from young people on the streets and continue the capital starvation they are feeling. We have to hear from them as they could, in theory, if they wanted to, make the difference to whether we halve emissions by 2030 or not. Some [companies] are tiptoeing in that direction, but they have to gallop in that direction.” If fossil fuel companies were to play their full part in the energy transition, as Figueres advocates, the huge trust gap between them, the public and many investors could be closed.

Trust is very much on Figueres’s mind, in particular the absence of it at Cop “between developed and developing nations, between governments and other stakeholders, and between the older generation at the decision tables and the young generation out on the streets”. One priority ahead of, and at, Cop27 in November must be for the outgoing UK Cop presidency and the incoming Egyptian one to “very consciously and intentionally work on rebuilding trust through integrity, credibility and transparency”. Figueres warned: “Without trust it will be very difficult to come to future agreements.”

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The reason for the lack of trust between rich and poor nations at the climate summit in Glasgow was largely because of the failure of developed countries to stump up promised cash to help less well-off nations adapt to and mitigate climate change. This too must change in 2022, said Figueres. “It seems to be a leitmotif at Cop that we fall short of financial support for developing countries.” The fact that a Western industrialised country and a significant African country are in charge of international climate action for the next couple of years “is quite fortuitous”, she added. “If they work together, they can help rebuild trust” and move forward the issue of climate finance.

As long as Figueres is pushing for change, the world has a fighting chance of holding warming at 1.5°C, as pledged in Scotland. Her prowess has been recognised by governments and civil society organisations around the world, and she has received, among many other awards, France’s Légion d’honneur. She has also been named in lists of influential leaders, and Costa Rica issued a commemorative postage stamp in her honour. Perhaps most fittingly, though, is the naming of a tropical moth, a wasp and an orchid after Figueres in recognition of her work on climate and nature. The increased attention on bringing these two agendas together is welcome, and long overdue, news for her.

“We struggled for years to be able to bring all of these nature-based issues together. There is no such thing as ‘climate is over here in one bucket, close the lid, open another bucket and here is deforestation, forests and land use, close lid, open another bucket and here are the ocean issues’. They are all part of the same ecosystem upon which we depend.” 

Concerns that wider geopolitics could scupper climate action are largely unfounded, believes Figueres. “We tend to think geopolitics have only been around in the past two weeks, but we have always had geopolitical challenges. Sometimes they are a wind [at] our back and sometimes a wind [at] our front. But they will always be there.” She pointed to the move by China and the US at Cop26 to set aside tensions to work together on climate change as “hopefully” the direction of travel. In Glasgow, US climate envoy John Kerry and Chinese climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua deemed global heating “a much larger issue, much more urgent and with graver consequences than anything else they are disagreeing about”. 

Figueres cautioned: “If we do not address climate change in a timely manner, it does not really matter what we do on human rights, on education or on health, because destruction on the planet will be so severe, everything else will fall by the wayside.”

An important reminder at a time when the world seems unable to focus on little outside the Covid pandemic.

[See also: The flood of Covid headlines are drowning out red alert climate warnings]

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