Governments can no longer ignore climate change: UNFCCC Executive Secretary

Patricia Espinosa Cantellano leads the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa remains optimistic about climate action despite the ‘Trump threat’ to the fate of the Paris Agreement, during an exclusive chat with The Hindu

Mexican diplomat Patricia Espinosa took over the reins at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) after the triumphant moment of 194 UN member nations coming together to adopt the Paris Agreement in 2015 had passed. Since November 8 last year, when climate skeptic Donald Trump ascended to the position of U.S. President, the mood in international climate policy circles has turned sombre. Last month, the U.S. government set out to undo Obama-era climate policies incentivising clean power and curbing coal production, reviving fears that the Agreement may fail to keep global warming levels under control as originally envisaged (U.S. is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world). Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Trump administration postponed a meeting to decide whether to pull out of the Paris Agreement or not. Vested with the challenging task of ensuring that the Agreement gets implemented, Ms. Espinosa showed rare optimism that positive climate action is still possible, despite the looming uncertainties.

In an exclusive interaction with The Hindu, during her two-day visit to India from April 18-19 in New Delhi, the seasoned diplomat spoke about why governments can longer ignore the matter.

How have you managed to keep the Paris 2015 momentum going since the Trump phenomenon?

When I presented my candidacy to lead the UNFCCC last year, I was aware of the size of the challenge. The Paris Agreement had already happened. How to translate that into action was now the question before us. To be able to transform societies and economies to low-carbon ones was an amazing challenge. To influence and to facilitate such an important transformation in the world would be like witnessing something of industrial revolution proportions. Just like how the industrial revolution had transformed the life of people all over the world, and led to the use of fossil fuels in a massive way, we have now realised that even if that process has provided us with new levels of well being, we’ve to address its negative impacts at the same time. The action that comes after the Agreement is more important than the Agreement itself. I have children; I hope to be a grandmother one day. It is a kind of a moral imperative for me. We cannot afford to have a reality (of climate change) that is posing such a threat to the future. As of today, 143 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement and most of the countries ratified it after the UN Marrakech climate summit last year. So, the momentum has happened in spite of the Trump phenomena. People thought that after November 8, countries won’t ratify the treaty anymore, but that has not happened.

But in March, the U.S. government withdrew several Obama-era policies aimed at curbing coal production and incentivising clean power. How is the UNFCCC going to ensure that parties to the Paris Agreement remain accountable?

In these kinds of multilateral agreements, the international community doesn’t have an instrument that allows some kind of sanctions on deviant parties. Why because these agreements are done by a sovereign state under the conviction that such a rules-based world is what is going to help them further their own interest. We all cooperate because we think this is the best possible manner to preserve our interest. In that sense, it’s important for the U.S. to realise that complying is in their self-interest. The Trump administration has asked the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to review the Clean Power Plan to make recommendations on what they should do with that policy. We need to wait and see what comes out of that revision. At the same time that this is happening, we’re also seeing a lot of commitment by individual states, city authorities, and businesses in the U.S. that are clearly going to help cut emissions. As concerns accountability, work is underway in the UNFCCC secretariat to prepare the rules of transparency and accountability on climate commitments. The decision on this is in an early stage. But I see a very strong commitment to make this happen by 2018. We will need to make a lot of progress on framing the rule book this year. By the November Bonn climate conference this year, we will have a much clearer idea on this.

The Trump administration says it is rethinking climate-friendly policies to “save American jobs”. How does the Paris Agreement seek to ensure a just transition to a low-carbon economy?

Just transition has become possible with countries and governments realising that we all need to change. We need to change the way we produce, the way we consume, the way we dispose of goods, how we use water, energy… And in the process of this transformation, there will be some areas, and sectors of the economy that may have a harder time coping. But what matters is to remain aware that new opportunities will arrive. Oil and gas companies are currently investing in R&D, they are figuring out how to do carbon capture and storage, for instance. Many firms are diversifying to renewable sources of energy, and investing in solar rather than depending on just one fossil fuel product. They’re also engaging in projects like reforestation, which create jobs and cut emissions as well. There have been clear failures too, such as the amount of jobs being created by clean technologies and clean industries are not enough, but then there is greater potential for jobs in renewable energy today than in the fossil fuel industry. India is a good example of a country that has embarked into wind and solar energy production and creating jobs in it. Other countries can learn from India’s experience. UNFCCC has also signed a MoU in March with the ILO on decent work and just transition to help countries in this area. Action to address climate change requires an adjustment. And we need to help countries identify and prepare themselves to seize those opportunities.

Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint has proposed sweeping cuts to the Global Climate Change Initiative that directs funding to the UNFCCC (20%) and the IPCC. How is it likely to affect the functioning of the agency you’re heading?

This is a proposal that needs to be discussed in the U.S. Congress and is part of a bigger package of negotiations. We’re currently looking at other sources of financing our organisation. Not only because of this particular move, but because many countries are facing a critical situation on budget. In Brazil, for instance, there has been a 40% budget cut across the government. There has to be some innovative way around the world to find new sources of funding climate action. We are worried about the potential loss of funding, but from the point of view of the secretariat, we will do our best to continue serving the process and support countries with whatever means we have.

The climate community has reached the consensus that pre-2020 action is vital to keep global warming levels under the danger threshold. In this context what hope does the 2nd commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol provide? India ratified it in January this year. But only 65 countries have joined in so far…

We’re trying to urge as many countries to ratify the 2nd commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol as possible. But the problem with the Kyoto Protocol is that there are too many countries that are out of that process and there are not too many incentives to go that way. Also, with the Paris Agreement entering into force earlier than 2020, action on the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions; to cut emissions) declared by partner governments will now constitute pre-2020 action.

How did your discussions with the Indian government go during this visit? Do you see India as a potential leader to fill the political vacuum created by U.S. vacating the climate leadership space?

I cannot draw comparisons between Indian leadership and that of the U.S.’s but India is a very strong player in this space in its own right. I have met the minister of environment, power and railways this time, and I am very impressed with the progress being made on reducing emissions. I was particularly impressed by the sustainability program envisaged by the Indian Railways, which includes plans for energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, augmenting solar and wind power for railways, and water sustainability. Solar roof-tops on trains (200 stations have been identified for this) and afforestation programme of the railways are also very impressive. The Delhi Metro too has augmented its renewable energy capacity under the Clean Development Mechanism.

The world is already witnessing the impacts of climate change. India, for instance, has been affected severely by drought, and farmers are dying due to crop damage. Unfortunately, in Marrakech, adaptation-related concerns on agriculture were left out of the negotiations, when climate finance was being discussed. What is the progress on this?

Adaptation has not been easy to address. In Marrakech last year, due to lack of time we couldn’t finish the discussion on this. Part of that agenda would be taken up in Bonn this year. But there is still a long way to go. Since Cancun (2010 UN climate summit), countries have had to make a national adaptation programme. It is now for the countries to do their homework and identify in a very precise way what their needs are in terms of technical support, in terms of financing. In the financial sector, insurance companies are already working on making this happen. Another challenge of adaptation finance is there not being enough bankable projects, though the funds are there. We need to build projects that are sustainable and offer returns on investment. It’s not about how many trees you plant, rather about how you take care of them or support the communities you can support through them…

There are very legitimate fears that the Paris Agreement might end up with a fate similar to that of the Kyoto Protocol, in that the provisions simply remain on paper, while the party nations carry on business as usual and remain indifferent. How do you manage to retain your optimism despite all this?

I can understand the prevailing mood of scepticism. But countries and communities are suffering the effects of climate change already. We are witnessing loss of lives, loss of livelihoods, high cost in terms of health services…Famine has affected parts of Africa, and there is internal displacement and migration due to this. Governments can no longer ignore such issues. Clean water, clean air and access to cheap energy are on the agenda of every government. And today, the best way to access energy is through renewable sources. The economy of the future has been aligned with the climate agenda. Even the competitiveness of companies will depend on how resource efficient they are. The only option we don’t have is to not do anything about it (climate change)…

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