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Christiana Figueres: Addressing climate change is “our task”

The former United Nations executive secretary for climate change is positive progress can be made - if we all get to work.

Six months after the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and amid news that most countries’ carbon output levels are flat or rising despite international effort to lower them, it may seem difficult to find much to be positive about on the climate change front.

And yet, Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Convenor, retains a measure of optimism.

At a Nov. 16 Thomson Reuters discussion in London to assess the progress of the climate agreement, Figueres shared four “megatrends” she’s encountered that give her reason to feel hopeful.

“Where we are is a very exciting time of transformation because of these four megatrends”

  1. Coal is on its way out: Twenty countries have committed to phasing out coal. China and India, two of the largest  phasing out coal production by 2030.
  2. Renewable energy is on its way in:  More affordable and scalable energy that is less harmful to the environment is becoming practical.
  3. Electrification of vehicles: Tesla, the most buzzed-about company pursuing non-fossil fuel vehicles, surpassed General Motors in stock value earlier this year. This has resulted in a rise across other automotive leaders following suit in the creation of electric vehicles, including big names like Volvo, Mercedes Benz, GM Ford and BMW. Furthermore, governments are committing to electric vehicles, such as India pledging to that all new vehicles in 2030 will be electric.
  4. Digitization and artificial intelligence: AI and digitization have allowed renewable energy to grow exponentially.

“The race is on and we are seeing all these megatrends working together,” she said.

In a subsequent discussion with Reuters Editor-at-Large Axel Threlfall, the conversation covered the importance of meeting the provisions of the climate agreement, “sad megatrends” Figueres has observed, the role of non-state actors and the behavioral changes needed at an individual level to curb the trend.

Smog rises from a chimney next a Chinese traditional gate in Beijing. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Smog rises from a chimney next a Chinese traditional gate in Beijing. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Paris Climate Agreement: “Not a dream, but our task”

Challenged on her optimism with a question on whether we can meet the goals outlined in the Paris agreement, Figueres highlighted how crucial it is for us to change the language from “ambition” to “task.”

“We will have to have this conversation in 2020,” she said. “If we don’t bend the curve and reach 1.5 degrees, we will condemn millions to death.”

Tourists walk along Red Square in heavy smog, caused by peat fires in nearby forests, in central Moscow. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk
Tourists walk along Red Square in heavy smog, caused by peat fires in nearby forests, in central Moscow. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

The role of businesses and non-state actors

With federal governments estimated to account for only 30 percent of emissions, the focus of the conversation moved to the importance of leadership from non-state actors, which includes businesses.

Figueres agreed that federal governments cannot deliver the goals on their own and need cities and businesses to lend their support.

“It’s not a gap. National governments only steer the ship, it’s up to all the other actors to do the work,” she said. “And I am confident that we will”

Using the rise in Green Bonds as an example, Figueres shared with the audience the reasons for her confidence.

“We’re currently at USD$100 billion in green bonds and we need to reach a trillion by 2020, which isn’t a huge number, if members of the (Principles for Responsible Investment) commit to 1 percent we’ll reach it,”  she said.

Ravens fly over solar panels at the Abakan solar electric station owned by Russian electricity firm EuroSibEnergo of En+ Group, in a suburb of the Siberian town of Abakan, in the Republic of Khakassia, Russia. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin - RC16021E7760
Ravens fly over solar panels at the Abakan solar electric station owned by Russian electricity firm EuroSibEnergo of En+ Group, in a suburb of the Siberian town of Abakan, in the Republic of Khakassia, Russia. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin – RC16021E7760

Global 250 and the bell curve

Figueres introduced the Bell Curve analogy. With reference to a recent white paper launched by Thomson Reuters that looks at the top Global 250 largest carbon emitters in the private sector, Threlfall quizzed Figueres’ optimism in response to the report’s findings that only one-third of the Global250 are decarbonizing.

“Why are only a third of the 250 decarbonizing? …. there’s always a chunk in the middle where are we at the bell curve,” she said. “We need a critical mass of that fact point to get to the fact point.”

Ice melts on the Aletsch Glacier in Fiesch, Switzerland. One of Europe's biggest glaciers, the Great Aletsch coils 23 km (14 miles) through the Swiss Alps - and yet this mighty river of ice could almost vanish in the lifetimes of people born today because of climate change. The glacier, 900 metres (2,950 feet) thick at one point, has retreated about 3 km (1.9 miles) since 1870 and that pace is quickening. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Ice melts on the Aletsch Glacier in Fiesch, Switzerland. One of Europe’s biggest glaciers, the Great Aletsch coils 23 km (14 miles) through the Swiss Alps – and yet this mighty river of ice could almost vanish in the lifetimes of people born today because of climate change. The glacier, 900 metres (2,950 feet) thick at one point, has retreated about 3 km (1.9 miles) since 1870 and that pace is quickening. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Behavioral change and “sad megatrends”

During the audience question-and-answer session, Figueres addressed some “sad megatrends” that require individual behavioral changes. The two most significant, in her view, are land use and the connection between diet and deforestation.

“It boggles my mind that we as a human race will make decisions that knowingly displace 60 million people,” she said.

Smoke billows as an area of the Amazon rainforest is burned to clear land for agriculture near Novo Progresso, Para State, Brazil. Deforestation. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Smoke billows as an area of the Amazon rainforest is burned to clear land for agriculture near Novo Progresso, Para State, Brazil. Deforestation. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Dare to ask: “What are you doing about climate change?”

With the accountability shifted from federal states to the individual level, Threlfall asked Figueres if there is another angle to engage the leaders of firms like the Global 250 which is about personal relationships.

“It’s about daring these leaders to have the conversation.  It’s about daring to ask, “what are you doing about climate change”, with the question may be coming from a close friend, or even child or grandchild?  Should we be encouraging these personal discussions at the top levels of leadership by essentially daring to ask…what are you doing about climate change?”


Learn more

Read the full Global 250 Greenhouse Gas Emitters: A New Business Logic report and visit our dedicated sustainability blog.

Watch the interview with Christiana Figueres:

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