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UN climate chief: Global warming above 2 degrees C is not an option

The path to a transformational energy revolution must be forged quickly and intentionally, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said at a Monitor-hosted event Tuesday. 

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    Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, speaks at a Monitor event in Washington on Nov. 3, 2015.
    Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
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Current national climate pledges are not enough to keep human-induced climate change in check, a top UN official said Tuesday, but countries can – and must – do more to cut heat-trapping emissions sooner rather than later.  

The risks from global warming are so unmanageable, the human cost so unpardonable, and the economic uncertainty so complete, that keeping global warming within a generally agreed upon safe range is crucial for global stability, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said at a Monitor-hosted event Tuesday, just a few weeks before a major climate summit in Paris.

In December representatives from 195 countries will meet in Paris to hammer out the details of an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions and curb climate change. But the path to a transformational energy revolution must be forged quickly and intentionally, Ms. Figueres said, and an agreement in Paris will be just one step in that direction.  

“We have to be able to admit publicly, privately, and everything in between that those 157 national climate change plans do not constitute enough emissions reductions to put us onto the path of 2 degrees [C],” Figueres said, referring to a level of warming above preindustrial levels that scientists believe is relatively safe.

“However, what they do do is get us off of the business-as-usual trajectory that we were on just four or five years ago to a temperature increase of 4 or 5 degrees, and by some estimates, even 6 degrees,” she added.  

Although the final details of the Paris agreement remain unclear, and further efforts will be needed even after the agreement is concluded, Figueres says she’s optimistic that countries and companies across the globe will eventually reduce emissions enough to create what she called “climate neutrality”.

Check out our highlights and the full video from our conversation with Christiana Figueres below:

Three big ideas

1. Paris is a beginning not an end

If you think that the agreement in Paris is going to be a one-off deal that will solve climate change, you will probably be disappointed, Figueres said Tuesday.

Changing an economic development model that has been in place for 150 years is a lot more difficult than it may seem. That is especially true when most developed countries have benefitted enormously from that model – namely, in burning fossil fuels – and many developing countries are vying to adopt it. Nevertheless, Figueres said the Paris talks would create a “receptacle” for national climate change plans that would denote “the deepest engagement with climate change” the world has ever seen.

Although the commitments countries are currently making are not enough to stop the planet from warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures, the Paris talks will draw a clear path for the future and help identify a final destination, Figueres said.

2. Climate change is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge 

“Frankly, I am up to here with the doom and gloom news about climate,” Figueres said at Tuesday's event. “This is the biggest opportunity and the best news that we have had; this is the mega-development project of the world, let’s wake up and take advantage of it.”

The UN's top energy and climate official pointed to immense growth potential in new technologies as a foundation for new industries and new employment opportunities. There are currently around 7.7 million jobs in renewable energy worldwide, and studies suggest that increased investment will create between 5 million and 10 million more jobs per year. Meanwhile, the number of indirect jobs created could be 4 times that figure, Figueres said, adding that a switch to a clean-energy economy could create new job opportunities, new industries, and new ways to do businesses.

“The real story here is that solar and wind are just going through the roof,” Figueres said. “This transformation is underway, it is unstoppable.”

3. Global and national interests may finally be converging

Countries involved in global climate talks already reached the zenith of accusatory blaming five or six years ago, Figueres said. Now, major changes have been made to how leaders approach climate talks. Negotiators look for where national interests and the global agenda coincide, and are using that as a basis for global climate talks.

That means that countries are more likely to follow through with their commitment. Still, the sum total of national interests does not necessarily match the global need for emission reductions, which makes it more important for Paris to have a contingency plan.

Two notable quotes

I have already been pellucidly clear about the fact that if I get one question in Paris that says, ‘and you didn’t get us onto 2 degrees,’ then I will chop the head off that person, because I have been saying for at least a year, if not more, that that is impossible [to get in Paris]." – Christiana Figueres

I am actually delighted about Volkswagen….When Volkswagen says we’ve screwed up, we admit it, now they are waiting to hear how high the fine is going to be. But what is their corporate strategy? They are going to scrap diesel. Scrap diesel! And we’re moving to electric vehicles. Well, now they have a little revolution under way.” – Christiana Figueres

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