Can Paris talks produce a climate change deal that sticks?

Countries from around the world will meet in a few weeks to try to reach agreement on limiting greenhouse gasses. Previous climate summits have been fraught with disagreement. Will the Paris meeting produce results? Jeffrey Brown speaks to UN climate chief Christiana Figueres about what to expect.

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    But, first, in just a few weeks, countries from around the world will meet in Paris to try to reach a new agreement on limiting or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But prior climate summits have often hit a wall over disagreements about economics, development and what should be the ultimate goals.

    As the Paris conference nears, Jeffrey Brown explores the prospects ahead.


    Last year marked the warmest for the planet since records were first kept, lending new urgency to calls from scientists and many leaders for slowing greenhouse gas emissions.

    To that end, the Paris summit could present a major opportunity — a key goal, find a way to slow the rise in global temperatures to about two degrees Celsius or by the end of the century.

    President Obama, who traveled to Alaska this summer to show the effects of warming, has made it a central focus of his second term, including new limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. In recent months, China, India and the European Union have all announced long-term plans.

    But a similar conference in Copenhagen six years ago failed to reach a deal. And there are questions about whether voluntary commitments will work this time, and also continued political opposition here and abroad.

    Christiana Figueres is the U.N.'s point person in charge of the Paris summit. I sat down with her in Washington earlier today.

    Christiana Figueres, welcome to you.


    Thank you, Jeff.


    Let me start with the big question, six years ago in Copenhagen widely seen as a failure. Now Paris. Have things changed?


    Well, you know, I have often said that Copenhagen was the most successful failure of the United Nations, because we learned an awful lot from Copenhagen. But, yes, things have changed.


    Is that good spin? Or is that…


    No, no, no, no, no, no. Truly, we made actually a very in-depth study of everything that went wrong in Copenhagen, so that we could learn. So, it's not just spin. It truly is the case.

    But, you know, in addition to the way that we handle conferences nowadays, in addition to that, what has changed dramatically is the context in which this meeting in Paris is going to take place, for many different reasons, technology perhaps being one of the very salient differences, where we had before — it wasn't really sure whether renewable energies would be able to compete with fossil fuel.

    But, today, we have the answer. Yes, they are already competing. So, you know, technology is definitely much better. Finance is already beginning to flow. We already have $2.6 trillion that's already moving into green technology. The policy…


    OK, but let me stop you on finances then, because I want to get to some of the continuing problems you face.

    The pledge by industrial countries to help poorer countries with $100 billion a year, that part hasn't happened.


    It is a pledge to help developing countries with $100 billion by 2020.

    A report that was just launched a couple of weeks ago shows that, in 2013, the flow was at $51 billion. In 2014, the flow was at $62 billion. And we don't have the numbers for 2015, obviously not also for next year, but there is already a trend going up, and hence a very good possibility that we will be able to — that they will be able to get to $100 billion.

    Those numbers that I quote have not been accepted by developing countries because there still has to be a discussion about methodologies, definitions and assumptions. But, order of magnitude, it shows that we're moving certainly in the right direction.


    Political will, you think, is more there than it was?


    Political will is definitely there.


    Where do you see that? Give me an example. Where do you see that?


    Well, that's very simple.

    All you have to do is take a look at the 157 national climate change plans that we have already received and counting, because we will receive more before Paris, so 157 different countries, every single one of the industrialized countries, every one, and over 100 other countries who have already put in writing and in public what they're going to do to contribute both to bringing emissions down, as well as to making their infrastructure more resilient.


    Most of that nonbinding agreements from these countries.

    A lot of experts continue to question that. Circumstances change. Politics change. How do you know that they stick to it?


    Well, first of all, I don't know of anything binding that is actually a guarantee.

    The Kyoto Protocol is the best example of that, because we had countries adopt the Kyoto Protocol and then not ratify. We had countries adopt, ratify and then still not comply. So, you know, even if it's legally binding, that's not a guarantee.

    And I think one of the major — going back to your first question, sort of the major, major shift that we had between where we were in Copenhagen and now is that countries have increasingly understood that addressing climate change is not just a global issue. It is actually also a national priority. It is national development opportunity.

    So, they're no longer seeing themselves as having to choose between what is important to them nationally and how they can contribute globally. But, rather, they're beginning to see the coincidence of these. That, to me, is a much more compelling driving force, because countries will operate in their own interests.


    Going into this conference, one of the huge goals, major goal, holding the warming to two degrees Celsius, already declared unreachable, according to your analysis.


    The sum total of all of those climate change plans make a huge dent in both the growth of emissions that would have projected without those climate change plan, and certainly in the corresponding temperature.

    So, without those climate change plans, we would have been where we were in Copenhagen, for example, moving into a scenario of a world that would have warmed four, five, six degrees centigrade. Today, with these climate change plans, assuming that they're implemented, and we can talk about that, we're moving into a world that, currently, with the current level of effort, would warm somewhere between 2.7 to three degrees.

    A major improvement. Is it enough? No.


    No, a huge dent, but not enough.


    Not enough, which is why Paris is not just going to be the receiving vessel for those climate change plans as currently being planned, but, rather, it will understand that that is the floor of global effort and certainly not the ceiling.


    You talk about the political will being there, but continued skepticism from many quarters in this country, in Congress.

    We're, of course, now in a presidential campaign again, where you hear about opposition to making changes in the economy, in policy for climate change. You are still facing that.



    But what I see is an increasing support on the part of certainly the private sector, as well as different subnational governments, whether they are state or city level, for President Obama's Clean Power Plan.

    But, more importantly than that, more importantly, let us remember that this is not the first time that this country has grappled with the question of, do we stay bound in an operating mode that has been prevalent in the past, or do we move toward something completely new?

    It is not the first time. And if you look at the history of the United States last century, this century, it is a very tough call. But the U.S., as every other country, eventually does make the right choice, and there is only one right choice to make. And I am very confident that this country will make the right choice, clearly.


    Christiana Figueres, thank you very much.


    Thank you very much for the invitation.

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