In conversation with Christiana Figueres - RSA Journal - RSA

In conversation with Christiana Figueres

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  • Environment

International leader on global climate change Christiana Figueres speaks to Andy Haldane about how outrage helps fuel her optimism for the future of our planet – and the significance of a little golden toad.

We wanted to draw a narrative arc from impossible to possible.

Christiana Figueres

Andy Haldane: I want to start at the very beginning: how did you first become interested in issues of climate and sustainability?

Christiana Figueres: I am not a trained natural scientist at all; I am a trained social scientist. I did both my undergrad and graduate degrees in anthropology because I wanted to understand how social change occurs, and I was an active anthropologist for the first few years of my professional life.

Before that, I was born into a political family and accompanied my parents on their political campaigns to every corner of my beautiful country, Costa Rica. One corner they took me to was a national park called Monteverde where we had a golden toad that did not exist anywhere else in the world. I was 11 or 12 and had never seen a more gorgeous living being. I just totally fell in love with nature. Then, when I became a mother, I thought it was my responsibility to instill in my daughters the same love of nature, and I wanted to take them back to Monteverde during the mating season of these toads – and they were gone. The entire species had become extinct, and I was absolutely appalled.

This was back in 1989. Scientists told me they believed that a rise in the temperature of the surface of the forest caused a fungal disease that killed the species. I thought, if I, in my 33 years, have witnessed the disappearance of one species in this tiny country, that must mean that many species are disappearing across the planet. I panicked, thinking there is no way that I am living up to my responsibility as a mother if I bequeath my daughters a diminished planet.

I started to learn more about what was happening and, before I knew it, I found myself in the basement of the UN building in New York, before the first ever climate change COP, working on behalf of my country to figure out how to design a COP process to implement the UN Climate Change Convention, which had been accepted and adopted by all the countries at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

So, there I was – in the midst of climate change because of a little golden toad.

Haldane: Back in 2015, you were one of the key movers in getting the landmark Paris Agreement passed. Can you give us your take on how that was achieved?

Figueres: To explain the success of Paris you have to look back at the failure of Copenhagen [COP15] in 2009, which I call the most successful failure of the UN. It was universally recognised as a total multilateral failure of politics and of diplomacy. But it was very successful in the sense that, as I assumed the leadership [as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] in 2010, we were able to carry out an in-depth analysis of what had gone wrong in Copenhagen.

Collectively, the global mood on climate from December 2009 was disastrous. It was in the trash can. At my very first press conference in July 2010, a journalist asked if I thought that a global agreement would ever be possible. My immediate answer was, “Not in my lifetime.” You know how sometimes you say things because they come out of your gut and through your mouth without going through your head?

That’s what happened, and then when it got to my head, two things were immediately evident to me. Number one, I just gave voice to the global mood on climate change. Second, I was not living up to my maternal commitment to turn over an improved planet to future generations. So, I decided: “I am going to devote my time here to proving to myself that I was wrong in what I said and that a global agreement is possible.”

I injected time to re-energise, regenerate that team of brilliant people at the secretariat who had devoted their entire life to climate change. I also travelled to almost every country to understand what they were envisioning for their own sustainability and future prosperity.

After several years, quite unusually for a UN institution, I created something called the Groundswell – a covert operation that went beyond the countries that are Parties to the Convention, and beyond the traditional tasks of the secretariat. I confidentially convened an unusual team of people under the direction of Tom Rivett-Carnac and gave them a mandate to build a ‘surround-sound system’ to envelop all Parties, and even the secretariat, with a positive message on the possibility of reaching a global agreement.

We wanted to draw a narrative arc from impossible to possible. That was a two-year journey. We reached out to technology providers, scientists, religious communities, women’s groups, youth activists, indigenous leaders, doctors, subnational governments… to all stakeholders, and we created a surround-sound system of encouragement. Every time governments got weak knees, wherever they turned, they got positive reinforcement that, yes, this was going to be possible.

Haldane: Groundswell was itself changing the climate of debate in pursuit of changing the climate. It’s a great case study in making change happen, especially globally. What were the other factors that ultimately made Paris a success?

Figueres: First, one of the key factors of success was that, even back in 2015, we were seeing that the technologies that could contribute to the decarbonisation of the global economy, for example renewable energies and electric vehicles, were already coming down in price, increasing their efficiency and competitiveness in the market.

Second, the geopolitics were very important. President Obama was in his second term and thus more willing to risk some of his political cards on climate change. We also had a Chinese government that understood that decarbonising their production lines actually offered a competitive edge and which was therefore willing to stretch and reach out to the US.

Third, we had the rise of subnational governments, especially cities, but also states and provinces, as political players in a way we hadn’t seen before, because they saw that their citizens needed the protection and the benefit of decarbonising the economy.

Finally, we had spent several years looking at everything that had gone wrong in Copenhagen and how we could correct it. There is never a more valuable lesson than having failed at something, and we ended up with a 300-page ‘Bible’ of lessons that we could use to design the improvement of the entire process.

Haldane: Let’s turn the clock forward to today. To put it charitably, the geopolitical stars are not in the same alignment now as then and progress against the targets has not been as we would wish. What is your sense of where we are now, both geopolitically and in terms of making good on the 2015 commitments?

Figueres: I think you may overestimate the impact of the tragic status of geopolitics now. The very difficult relationship between the US and China, to begin with, or between Russia and the rest of the world, is certainly of huge concern. Geopolitics is definitely not with us at all.

At the same time, and without minimising the unforgivable pain and suffering that has been visited on the Ukrainian people, one of the unintended consequences of the Russian invasion is that the world has woken up to the perils of continuing to depend on fossil fuels. No nation wants to continue to depend on erratically priced, unpredictable imports of fossil fuels produced by irresponsible regimes. That has had a very interesting impact, with investment into renewables going completely through the roof.

Five years ago, we invested $1tn into fossil fuels and the same into clean energy; it was shoulder to shoulder. This year, we are still investing $1tn into fossil fuels, but we are investing $1.7tn into clean energy. That means that we have turned a corner with energy.

I would argue that geopolitics is no longer as critical as it was back in 2015, because today the guidelines or guardrails for the decarbonisation of the economy have been set: read the Paris Agreement. Now it is the political economy that is pushing the transformation forward. We may be seeing a race to the top!

The positive characteristics of renewable energy are now so compelling that market forces are arguably more important than geopolitical forces. Market forces are already driving electricity generation from renewables, electrification of light vehicles, and right behind them we will see the electrification of heavy trucks, ships and even aviation. All of that will be decarbonised in spaces of time we would never have imagined 10 years ago. The energy sector is going exponential in its decarbonisation simply because it’s a better technology and offers energy independence.

Where we are definitely not going exponential is with nature. Everything to do with land use, regenerative agriculture, with stopping deforestation, that whole sector is way behind. There is no compelling business model behind that yet. The narrative is still a moral obligation-based narrative that doesn’t square with the market economy, sadly, because economists have still not internalised the externalities into everything that has to do with land use and with nature. As soon as they do, the risk–reward ratio will fundamentally change.

Haldane: You said that nature is where the dynamic hasn’t yet changed. But it’s not a universally bleak story. I turn back to Costa Rica, which has been a green pioneer. What delivered it in Costa Rica and what can we learn from that experience?

Figueres: Costa Rica’s story is impressive, but it is unique, and it is the story of a country that realised very early that we had absolutely no value under the ground. We have no metals, no mineral resources, no precious stones, no fossil fuels, we have nothing to dig up or extract. All our resources are above ground. Our biodiversity is our richness, our wealth.

Since we don’t have fossil fuels for electricity generation, we decided to use what we had, which was water. From the beginning our electrification in Costa Rica was with hydro. To that we later added geothermal because we also have several active volcanoes. We then added wind when wind energy became commercially available.

With respect to the land use sector, our agriculture is not one to model in front of any other country, with poor use of land for both cattle and agriculture. This is still a huge challenge for us. But where we are an impressive example is for what we have done on forest cover. Just 20 years ago we had 29% of the country under forest cover and today we have 52%. We are one of the very few countries that have not just halted deforestation but increased forest cover.

Why? Because it’s in our economic interest to do so. We are an eco-tourist destination; tourism is our number-one income. People come to Costa Rica to enjoy our national parks. They come here because of our biodiversity. We understand that the more we protect our biodiversity, the more income we are going to have from tourists.

This is value and values. We can get on our moral high horse and say we are protecting our land, but, honestly, it also just makes financial sense, and that’s the way it should be. We should be able to make a business case for protecting, investing in and regenerating nature. It should not be only a morality issue. If it’s not a compelling business case, it’s just not going to happen. So again, here is my call to the economists of the world to fix that.

No nation wants to continue to depend on erratically priced, unpredictable imports of fossil fuels produced by irresponsible regimes.

Christiana Figueres

Haldane: The economics profession is playing catch-up. But what are the avenues for helping us make the business case compelling? Economists like markets, and now there is an embryonic movement towards developing markets in nature. Is this a route to redemption for nature and making the business case?

Figueres: I know this is a polarising topic, but I am very much of the school of thought that believes we must attach monetary value to that which we treasure. That means attaching a monetary value to the role of nature. I am an enthusiast for markets and have been a proponent of carbon markets in both the energy and the nature sector for years. I know that there are many countries that don’t agree with that position, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

There is a case to be made for the timing and the urgency of the injection of capital into the restoration and regeneration of nature. The argument that we first must reach total decarbonisation in the energy sector before we turn our attention to nature is dangerous, because it would mean that we wouldn’t turn to nature until 20 or 30 years from now. How much nature are we going to have left by then?

We should be able to make a business case for protecting, investing in and regenerating nature. It should not only be a morality issue.

Christiana Figueres

Haldane: What’s come across today is how much of an optimist you are as the person who set up the Global Optimism Group and through the Outrage + Optimism podcast. So, what are the grounds for optimism?

Figueres: There are a lot. First, I derive optimism from our accomplishments. Let’s recognise that we are already in a much better place today than we were in the past with respect to many social and economic issues such as infant mortality, women’s rights, education in general (but especially for girls and women) and positions of power for women. There is ample data to show that we have improved as a society. We have brought millions of people out of poverty.

Second, I take optimism from the present. What the young people are doing, the millions of people who are on the streets and calling us to account because they understand that this is about their life, is deeply moving to me and so inspiring. It is certainly the responsibility of my generation to change the trajectory of emissions, but it is fantastic that we’re being pressed by young people today.

Third, let’s look at what is possible in the future. The world can be so much better, because we have the capacity for cities that are not built out of cement, roads and bridges, but actually organically grown, where there is much more local production of fruits and vegetables, where there is water capture, where there is more greenery, where there are fewer cars, because we have better transport, shared transport, intelligent transport, where pavements have been transformed into gardens, where rooftops are gardens, where building walls capture solar energy.

The technologies are there for sustainable agriculture, to end famine. We produce enough food for everyone to eat, we just don’t distribute it efficiently. We can produce healthy food and distribute it correctly, produce it where it is more needed, as opposed to depending on long transport. We are just beginning to understand what the oceans can provide for us, starting with what can be done with seaweed. The fact that we have so many entrepreneurs investing today into those technologies of tomorrow is a deep well of optimism.

The future is incredibly promising. I take optimism from that. I hope that I will live long enough to see some of these amazing pilot projects become mainstream, because the future that we want and the future that we choose is so much better than the present that we have.

As Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate ChangeChristiana Figueres was instrumental in bringing about the successful Paris Agreement of 2015. She is Co-Founder of Global Optimism and co-host of the Outrage + Optimism podcast.

Andy Haldane is Chief Executive Officer at the RSA.

Artwork by Peter Crowther for the RSA. Peter is an illustrator who specialises in photorealistic 3D rendering.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.

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