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A Global Deal: The UN’s Christiana Figueres on the Paris Climate Agreement

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and 2016’s 79th most powerful person in finance.

BY WORTH | Finance | Nov 3, 2016

Q: The Paris Agreement is perhaps the largest global economic and diplomatic agreement in history. What did it take to get all 180 member nations on board?

A: The most challenging, but also the most rewarding, part of the eventual Paris Agreement was the shift that occurred—over the course of several years—to understand that while it was very important to address the global nature of climate change, because it is a global challenge that needs a global framework, it cannot be understood in opposition to national interest and to national development plans.

Basically, it’s a problem that affects everyone, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution?

It was really fundamental for everyone to be able to see that (A), on the whole, unabated climate change would have a negative impact on all countries; (B), no single country could address this; (C), that you need all countries to collaborate with each other; but (D), that collaboration perhaps needs to be based on more short- or medium-term interests. The balance is between the global need and the national interest, between the long-term need of addressing climate change, but also the short- and medium-term development needs.

Theoretically this sounds great, but the 2009 Copenhagen conference failed to make any progress in reaching consensus. What changed?

The cost-benefit analysis became more and more clear to everyone in terms of the risks we incur by not approaching climate change. In the beginning, let’s say before Copenhagen, the concern was that addressing climate change, switching to cleaner technology, to cleaner fuel, was so expensive that it was something that we couldn’t afford, and that it was risky to switch. Whereas with time, people started understanding that the contrary was true, that the risks we incurred in not switching the development model and not progressing to clean technologies and clean energy were much higher.

When it comes to actually altering investment habits, governments can only do so much, though.

Governments can set the direction, but they are not the owners of technology, they’re not the owners of capital. Think of it as a very large ship where you have a captain up in the bridge setting the direction—i.e., the government—but you also have the engine room. Just to set the direction doesn’t really get you very far. I was very active in personally reaching out to the investor community, to the insurance community, to the technology community, to the banking community. All of those who are actually much more active participants in the engine room. Even to the energy industry, both clean and fossil fuel. I had very, very active conversations with all of them because it was clear that they needed to be on board.

How do you make this sort of agreement effective?

It’s a very challenging situation because you don’t have authority over anyone. You cannot dictate anything. I do think that in a strange way that is a strength, because it does force you to be completely impartial, and I think that is where the authority of the UN comes in, from the complete impartiality and the commitment to be a very faithful listener to all countries, to all sectors, to truly understand where everyone is coming from, and then to have the responsibility to encourage cross-fertilization of understanding.
We’ve got to understand that in this incredibly interlinked world, especially in this century, we have reached planetary limits and even gone beyond planetary limits. Because of that, it’s not just the technology of communication that makes us interconnected. We have lived for far too long thinking that we have full control over our national boundaries, and whatever we do inside those boundaries only has an effect on us. That is no longer true.

During the climate negotiations, did you ever find that you had to adopt a different persona when working with nations as different as the UK and Brazil and India?

No, I don’t adopt a different persona, because I’m me. It is people who are making these agreements. But it does help me to be sensitive and understanding and very open and have deep listening skills for the different cultures and the different characteristics of the economies of the people that you’re listening to. You’re right, it’s not the same conversation with Saudi Arabia as it is with Fiji. Obviously their concerns and their anxieties are very different. What they have in common, however, is that they really understand their own national circumstances and all of them wish the best for their people. The differences are actually the very ripe material that contributes to a very flexible agreement. It’s very much about identifying the commonality of humanity, but also the differences among different people and being very open and, yeah, deep listening is the best description for it.

You were nominated to be the next secretary-general of the UN. If you had won, you would have been the first woman to hold the post. How important would that be for the UN?

I don’t think the UN has to be led by a woman. I do think that putting a woman there sends a very important signal across the world, because after 70 years and eight male secretary-generals, it is about time to have a female there. But that doesn’t solve the gender challenge that we have. Just having a woman there doesn’t mean that we have solved the inequality between men and women, that we have solved the fact that there is such huge, rampant violence against women and children, that there is a disparity in the radical difference in opportunities that we offer to girls and boys, that there is a difference in the way we pay women and men for the same job, etc., etc., etc. None of those issues are solved by having a woman, but it does send an important signal around the world.
Having said that, I do think it is critical to have somebody at the UN who’s really in touch with his or her humanity. Because while it is very important to be a good administrator, and the administration and careful management of human and financial resources of the UN is very important, in addition to that, I do think that this century is one in which we will be able to address our challenges better if we’re in touch with our own individual humanity and our common humanity that brings us all together.

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