I had the good fortune to have tea with Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), just six days following Donald Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. I was very curious to hear what Ms Figueres had to say, given her pre-eminent role as key architect of the Paris Accord, which corralled 195 countries into a binding global agreement to address climate change.
She didn’t disappoint. Her thoughts, along with some of my own reflections on “what happens next,” appear below.
Do you see the U.S. decision to walk away from implementing the Paris Climate Accord as “two steps back” in the fight against climate change?
As shocking as it may seem, the US President’s announcement of “no more effort” on climate change did not send Ms Figueres into a panic, even though the US is the world’s second largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter. This is for several reasons.
First, the Paris Accord remains intact, even if the US withdrawal does take place. On the heels of Donald Trump’s announcement, 100+ heads of state of signatories to the Accord declared that there will be no renegotiation, and several influential players such as China, the EU, and the US state of California reasserted their commitment to work together on this. We are on an “unstoppable, irreversible path towards decarbonization because it makes sense,” according to Ms Figueres, and the pace of change will only accelerate as technology makes more things possible, and as the benefits of moving towards a low carbon economy become manifest. These benefits include green jobs, less pollution, and more sustainable growth.
Lastly, even as the Federal government under Trump will not implement the Paris Accord and looks to roll back progress made on a number of environmental issues, individual US states have stepped into to exercise their right to implement the Accord as planned. Right after Trump made his announcement, the Governors of New York, California and Washington announced their intention to uphold the Paris Accord; they have since been joined by nine other states committing to do the same.
Public recognition also helps. Google searches for climate change rose two to three times their normal rate in the five days following Trump’s announcement, indicating that at the very least, his repudiation of the Paris Accord has put one of our most urgent issues back in the headlines.
By deciding to withdraw from the Paris Accord, is the US ceding global leadership on climate change to China?
Proponents of a bipolar world may have put forward the notion that the US decision to abdicate leadership on climate action hands this role to China. This is far from the truth. What these views miss is that whether China is regarded as a global leader on climate has everything to do with what China does, and very little to do with the US government’s stance.
Ms Figueres stressed that China is already in a leadership position on climate issues, having committed and begun to finance a transition away from fossil fuels and towards more renewables such as wind and solar. It has also put in place measures such as a nationwide carbon trading system (coming online in 2017) to ensure an economy that is clean, green and future-focused. China is not alone in having invested significant sums to create a low-carbon future; it remains the world’s biggest emitter. But it is clear that for this country that there is no looking back. This single-minded focus will ensure that China’s emissions peak will likely occur well before its 2030 target.
Our focus these few days has been on proclamations amongst governments about things that may be far into the future. Let’s be concrete: are we moving fast enough and how is our progress relative to the challenge at hand?
If there is one thing that worries Ms Figueres, it is “speed.” She fears that we might not be moving fast enough to peak our global emissions and begin the “climbdown” from 40+ Gigatons to zero. Decarbonization cannot happen overnight without severe impacts on the climate; within reason, we need a long and gently sloping road to zero, rather than a steep descent. Whether we reach this global inflection point soon enough largely depends on investments we make today: every building or industrial installation that goes up and every piece of transport infrastructure that is built will be locking in carbon emissions for years to come.
As a result, we should be looking hard at all the ways to incentivize states, companies, and people to be investing wisely so that the “lock in” effect helps us on the road to decarbonization rather than slows our progress. Technology will provide some support going forward, as will building on our learnings at each stage of the way. But ensuring that finance will be allocated in a way that supports a sustainable future will be key.
The event was made possible by Conservation International Hong Kong, for whom Ms Figueres is a Distinguished Fellow within the Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship.