Speaker: Ms Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
Chairperson: Amb. Barry Desker, Dean, RSIS
Organised by: RSIS Centre for NTS Studies
Supported by: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), Singapore
The 18th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP18, to be held in Doha in November 2012 represents yet another opportunity to move forward on the climate change agenda. The disappointments of Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban had swept whatever progress previous COPs had been able to achieve under the rug, and placed the relevance of the UNFCCC process under question. In this RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Ms Christiana Figueres, takes on this issue through focusing on three themes: the status and progress of climate change negotiations; why a multilateral process is essential; and the critical role of the private sector in facilitating progress towards the low-carbon tipping point.
Ms Figueres began by noting that climate change could become an amplifier and multiplier of ‘compounded and compounding challenges’ such as population growth, water, food, resources, energy, environment and debt. She warned that if climate change remains unchecked, it could negate or reverse progress in developing countries and ‘catapult us over an environmental tipping point into uncharted territory in which no national future will be sustainable’. There is thus an urgent need to ‘accelerate the economic tipping point toward the best’. In other words, a new socioeconomic paradigm is required, one that supports population growth without exhausting the carrying capacity of the planet. She saw the climate change negotiation process as the agent for creating this new paradigm.
The COP18, according to Ms Figueres, will concentrate on closing key regulatory, financial and ambition gaps in the international response to climate change. The meeting will focus on renewing commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, the Long-Term Cooperative Action initiative, the Green Climate Fund and the Durban Platform. Ms Figueres emphasised that the climate change negotiation process must increase its ambition without delay, and that this is critical to achieving the UNFCCC’s agreed 2 degrees centigrade objective and a further revision of the target to 1.5 degrees if scientific evidence calls for it. She highlighted the increasing engagement of governments, intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and business groups in submitting a range of proposals to achieve this goal.
Ms Figueres acknowledged that the multilateral climate change negotiation process could be slow, inefficient and ineffective. However, she argues that such a process is necessary, and gives three reasons for this view. First, all countries are affected in one way or another by the impacts of climate change. Second, with many countries contributing to the process, the climate change solutions that are implemented would be more cost-effective and more durable. Lastly, she highlighted the need for a standardised global accounting system for measuring and reporting progress on climate change actions. She argues that there is a need to go beyond top-down or bottom-up approaches, or actions by countries on an individual basis. Focus must instead be on concurrent, mutually reinforcing efforts to spiral up towards a low-carbon economy.
The private sector has a critical role in accelerating the massive movement of capital towards clean technologies. Ms Figueres notes that renewable energy consumption is already rising as part of the clean energy revolution. Investment in clean energy is also growing, with an increasing number of major industrials leading in clean energy markets. Major companies are also starting to recognise climate change as the biggest medium- to long-term risk and opportunity. The right policy signals to the private sector would be critical in increasing the pace of progress towards the low-carbon tipping point.
Ms Figueres proposed five main signals, namely: (1) fiscal, regulatory, and monetary policy coordination that integrates climate risks into national economic and security planning; (2) clear policy frameworks in which business can and must act; (3) new thinking on climate-related, long-term debt financing to attract larger institutional investors; (4) using public funds to de-risk and leverage private funds into large-scale projects in the developing world; and (5) a much clearer carbon price signal.
Ms Figueres concluded her lecture by commending Singapore for ‘punching above its weight’ at international climate negotiations. She then challenged everyone ‘to do more’ and ‘move quicker’ towards the low-carbon tipping point with a national climate change strategy that involves action by government, the private sector and civil society.
The discussion revolved around four main themes: (1) the value of international climate negotiations, particularly the UNFCCC process; (2) Singapore’s role in the climate process; (3) the role of the private sector; and (4) mainstreaming climate change.
Considerable concern was expressed over the value of international climate negotiations given that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. Ms Figueres rephrased this as ‘nothing can be agreed until enough is being done’, and noted that no country would agree to something at international negotiations to which they do not feel comfortable with at the domestic level. This is reflected in the comprehensive climate change legislation in 18 countries today.
Ms Figueres acknowledged the criticisms about the ‘endless negotiations’, and the perception that climate change negotiations are spiralling to the bottom. She noted, however, that the negotiation process is how the UNFCCC is set up, and that, despite problems, negotiations provide an invaluable forum for inclusive dialogues on climate challenges. She emphasised that the UN is but a platform to ensure that every government has an equal voice and participation in a transparent system. The UN merely calls the party but it does not determine the outcome – governments do. For example, governments can cap and rebate but not the UN. Thus, each government has to contribute to the process, and she cites the Swedish proposal for a voluntary carbon tax on individuals and the Dutch initiative to carbon-footprint credit card transactions as examples. The real value of international agreements, according to Ms Figueres, is in their ability to act as a catalyst for countries to do something about their commitments.
Ms Figueres agreed that the increasing number of participants in the UNFCCC process adds to the complexity, and that some actors thus find the process difficult to digest. She further noted that the number of actors can only grow, given that climate change affects all sectors. On this issue, Ms Figueres said that it is important to remember that climate change is not a simple problem, and thus a simple solution cannot be expected. On the question of whether there can be a parallel system for climate change mitigation and adaptation that is in a simpler language with a more unified goal, Ms Figueres emphasised that ‘there is no plan B because there is no planet B’.
The relevance of the UNFCCC apart from its negotiations and conferences was also brought up. Should it have a broader mandate? Its role in encouraging policies that enable entrepreneurs to reduce operational costs through the use of renewable energy sources was cited as an example. Ms Figueres emphasised that addressing climate change is not about the agreed text but the implementation. In this regard, the pace of the UNFCCC process is dependent on the speed at which governments are able to implement various climate policies.
Ms Figueres then clarified how the UN-led Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+) came about. The absence of forestry emission reduction opportunities in the Kyoto Protocol led to the addition of ‘conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks’ to the REDD+ goals. Ms Figueres noted that the REDD+ negotiations have to tackle issues of how REDD+ will figure in the post-2012 climate regime and how to find adequate financing for each stage of the REDD+ programme, which can either be through market-based mechanisms or completely separate financing sources.
The problem of reducing carbon emissions – in particular, reducing fuel subsidies in order to reduce the use of gasoline – was discussed. Ms Figueres said that the commitment of the Group of 20 (G20) to phasing out fuel subsidies is not moving forward, with dwindling participation in self-reporting mechanisms. She stressed the inefficiency of fuel subsidies not only for the environment but also for the market, as subsidies conceal the heavy burden of importing fossil fuels. The Group of 77 (G77) is also not making much progress in this area. Ms Figueres emphasised the need to push for climate change mitigation activities to balance the lack of initiative in phasing out fuel subsidies.
There were also remarks of praise on Singapore’s role as a ‘heavyweight’ in climate negotiations. Ms Figueres highlighted Singapore’s role in influencing the trends in global climate negotiations. Singapore’s climate change strategy showcases how a state can balance trade and sustainable development. She suggested that Singaporean youth, and youth in general, with their growing purchasing power and increased ability to communicate in real time, have a greater responsibility to address climate change.
There were also remarks about the role of the private sector in the areas of energy efficiency and sufficiency. In Singapore, the price of certified emission reductions (CERs) is extremely low and provides little incentive for the private sector to participate in energy efficiency activities. Energy efficiency also tends to be less of a priority in developing countries compared to energy sufficiency, as many developing countries are generating less energy than the amount they need to ensure socioeconomic development. However, in meeting their energy needs, countries should avoid dependence on fossil fuels and aim for a healthier energy mix. This, Ms Figueres suggested, would require the engagement of the private sector in an environment of regulatory certainty, incentives and a clear goal to reduce carbon emissions. She stressed that private sector involvement and government action could be mutually reinforcing – the more active the private sector, the more vocal they will be on carbon pricing and climate policy, and the more political space there will be for the government to pursue the climate change agenda. Ms Figueres also proposed that Singapore could serve as a model for countries to move ahead on carbon pricing, by motivating greater business investments in the area through its engagement with the private sector.
There was significant discussion on how to mainstream climate change into development or health policy and into other international platforms. Ms Figueres admitted that each sector requires depth and specialisation, and that there are thus specific difficulties associated with each development issue. She argued that mainstreaming climate change requires integration of climate policies at the national level, and she suggested that the vulnerability of a given sector to climate change could pave the way for engaging with that sector effectively at the domestic level. There was also concern about how to make the policy environment more conducive to climate policy in the case of less developed countries. Such countries find themselves embedded in the international system and are expected to incorporate climate change into their development policies at the national level, but may not have the capacity to do so. Ms Figueres argued that integrating and mainstreaming climate change through ‘osmosis’ is critical. Letting the climate change agenda grow in importance not through imposition but at its own pace can lead to a better policy environment not only for the UNFCCC but also for the sustainable development agenda.
About the Speaker:
Christiana Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 17 May 2010. Ms Figueres has been involved in climate change negotiations since 1995 as part of the Costa Rican negotiating team and represented Latin America and the Caribbean on the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism in 2007, and as Vice President of the Bureau of the Conference of the Parties 2008-2009. Between 1995 and 2003 she founded and directed the Centre for Sustainable Development of the Americas (CSDA), a non-profit think-tank for climate change policy and capacity building. From 1994-1996, she served as Director of the Technical Secretariat. Renewable Energy in the Americas (REIA). She has also served on the boards of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in climate change, including the Voluntary Carbon Standard. She is a widely published author on the design of climate solutions, and was a frequent advisor to the private sector on how to play a leadership role in mitigation.