Christiana Figueres on tackling Covid-19, the climate crisis and inequality

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So I want to start by looking at the big picture, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the fight against climate change. Before this pandemic started, there seemed to be good momentum with policymakers focusing on cutting emissions. Now the COP26 climate talks have been postponed until next year. The enactment of the European Commission’s new climate law committing Europe to net zero emissions by 2050 also delayed. Is it the case that the climate crisis has simply become less of a priority for governments because it’s not as urgent of a life-threatening issue as coronavirus is, and if so how damaging is that to the fight against climate change?

Well, the fact is that both are equally urgent in different ways. The Covid-19 crisis is one that we have to face immediately. The climate change crisis is equally as urgent, but it does have a longer period of addressing it in order to address it. So it’s two different senses of urgency and we have to be able to understand that, that one is chronic and one is acute, but they’re both urgent.

Now the fact is that during these coronavirus times, we have seen that greenhouse gases have been reduced. And they have been reduced because we’re all staying at home, and the economy has really come to a screeching halt. That is not what decarbonization looks like. Yes, we have had a descent of eight per cent in greenhouse gases, which is more or less what we should be doing on a permanent basis, but an intentional basis, not as a fall out of economic downturn.

So we shouldn’t confuse one thing with the other. And we should be able to take advantage of that, of the coronavirus crisis that has an economic crisis attached to it. Anywhere between $12 to $20tn of public money are going to go into the economy over the next 18 months. And if we understand that the crises have converged, but so must the solutions. The solutions should also converge. So we can address both at the same time, and in fact, we must.

And I wanted to ask you about that statistic you mentioned, the eight per cent reduction in, I believe, fossil fuels this year compared to last year. I think that’s the international energy agency’s figure. I mean, does that show that it is so difficult for countries to achieve this because it was achieved, as you said, when their economies came to a standstill. So how do they achieve that going forward without that happening?

Well they achieved that because we came to a screeching halt, but that’s not the way that we want to do it. We want to do it by, in fact, to the contrary, invigorating an economy, but not putting the wheels of the economy back on track with the attendant, intensity, and frankly, waste of carbon.

What we have to understand is that we waste a lot of energy. We waste a lot of carbon. We waste a lot of carbon dioxide emissions because we not being very smart about the energy that we use. So we have now the opportunity to get back into economic thriving situation, but do so by decoupling the GHG, which are the greenhouse gases from the GDP, the measure through which we measure economic development. Those two things need and can be decoupled. And in fact, in Europe, those two have actually decoupled already, and a few other countries are beginning to decouple.

I mean, on that point, there’s been a lot of rhetoric around building back better, and of course, we’re talking about more sustainable growth going forward, but have you seen concrete examples of governments putting forward low carbon policies in their economic recovery plans? And if so, I mean, which countries are doing well at this in what you described and which aren’t?

Yeah, I actually don’t even like, Vanessa, don’t even like the term build back better because we shouldn’t be building back. We should be building forward. We should be building with a very different intent, with a very different target, with a very different logic in our economic structure.

So, for me, it’s more about building forward rather than building back just a little bit better. This is a huge opportunity to do transformational changes, and we have some countries that are already moving in that direction. So you have certainly the European Union as a region has already put forward a recovery package that is much more green than what was there before. And they’re doing a pretty good job on that.

On my continent, the country of Chile is doing a pretty good job accelerating green energy and being able to take advantage of this opportunity. But frankly, Vanessa, it’s few and far between. We still have not normalised the fact that these recovery packages have to be green in order to be long-lasting.

And I want to ask you about the US, because of course, it’s one of the biggest emitters in the world, it’s also the largest economy in the world, and as you’re well aware, President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, which you played a key role in achieving. Now if the US does pull out of this accord as planned on November 4, the day after the US election, first of all, what are the consequences of this? And secondly, if Joe Biden were to win the election this year, do you think that could revive climate action, both in the US and abroad?

Yes, definitely. So President Trump will retire the United States – will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on the 4th of November because no matter what the elections will determine, he will still be president in November. So he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, which is actually quite sad. Quite sad that someone does not understand, first, the risks of not addressing climate change, but even more importantly, the opportunity, the economic and technological opportunity of decarbonizing the economy.

Now, fortunately, 60 per cent of the US economy continues to decarbonize. Most of the states, on both the east and the west coast, continue to decarbonize hundreds of cities in between. Hundreds of corporations everywhere in the United States continue to decarbonize because they understand that this is the opportunity of the 21st century.

Now should Biden win the elections, first, he has already announced that he would rejoin the Paris Agreement immediately, and it doesn’t take much to get an executive order ready. But also he would start to align federal government policies and incentives with those efforts in the United States to be on the cutting edge of this new technology. It’s actually quite sad that the exit of the United States has allowed China to take the lead.

China is the highest investor into renewable energy, whether it be solar or wind. They’re the highest investor in electric vehicles as well as in charging systems. It’s actually quite sad that the United States has left that vacuum for other countries to fill. So yes, a president Biden would make up for that very quickly.

And I want to talk more about China in a minute, but just one more question on the Paris Agreement. I mean, you’ve written about how crucial this decade is for meeting those targets for countries to cut their emissions. Do you think that this pandemic and the way in which it’s changing how we live, how we work, how we commute, the discussions that people are having around the sort of economic growth that countries should be pursuing. Does all of this amount to making it more likely that countries will hit those targets or less likely?

I think it makes it more likely in the sense that we have realised that we can do things very differently, that we don’t absolutely have to travel three times around the planet to go to a one-hour meeting or to deliver a one-hour speech at a meeting. We have realised that absolutely it is not the same to do things via video, via Zoom, via any of the other technologies that have invested so much in these past few months, but that the marginal difference in quality of being there in person does not necessarily justify the toll on personal health, certainly the greenhouse gas emissions of travel. And so I do think that we have realised that we can do things quite differently.

In fact, quite dramatically different, which is something that we hadn’t considered before. The fact that education is now so much online. The fact that many people even when the economy opens up, many people will choose to continue to work from home. And many companies will actually choose to allow them to work from home. A, because they can save on office space. They don’t necessarily have to have 100 per cent occupancy there.

They can have office space for maybe 50 per cent or 60 per cent of their collaborators and save on the rest of the office space. And quite interestingly, the CEOs that I have talked to recently have told me across the board that they see a 30 per cent increase in productivity on the part of people who are working from home. So I think both on the part of those who are working of employees as also on the part of employers, there is going to be an openness, if not an eagerness, to change the way that we work.

I mean, talking about changing, one area where there seem to be success again before the pandemic started was cutting down in plastics, and that’s something now that seems to have taken a backseat because of concerns around an infection and contamination during this pandemic. Do you think – I mean, also in the UK, a ban on plastic stirs and straws has been delayed. So do you think these sort of issues, is this a big setback for the war against plastic and for cutting down on single use plastic?

No, I think this is actually a temporary situation where we’re not always going to be at the height of the Covid pandemic. I think we will be able to develop higher hygiene and personal protection measures with respect to our health, but that not necessarily have the environmental impact. So I think, you know, we’re still exploring.

How do we move this? I would say, Vanessa, that we’re in a transition on a lot of these issues, on travel, on work, on plastics. We’re in a transition that is by definition messy, and where we come out on the other side, of course, remains to be seen. But I think actually that we have a huge opportunity here to rethink everything for the better. So not to build back, but to build forward.

Well, when we look at building forward, and I guess lessons from previous crises, I want to turn back to China now because after the 2008, 2009 financial crisis, there was a rise in those emissions, especially from China, those energy intensive stimulus packages, and that seems to be happening again. I mean, there’s data from carbon brief which shows that China’s CO2 emissions fell 25 per cent during the lockdown. So a huge fall, obviously, we would expect some rebound, but already that’s been increasing by four per cent to five per cent year on year in May alone. I mean, what reason is there to think that this time it will be different?

Well, you know, I think that China is actually waiting for US elections to define a lot of their, certainly, their international policy. We do know that they’re looking very seriously at their Belt and Road Initiative to figure out where those investments are going to go and what are the characteristics of those investments are going to be. Are they going to be high carbon? If they are high carbon, we have a serious problem on our hands. Conversely, if they’re able to make those investments in order to help accelerate this energy transition, in particular in developing countries, then we would have accelerated the response to climate change.

So I think that we’re at a fork in the road. We don’t know which way they’re going to go. I think that one factor is definitely going to be whether the United States is going to play ball because China and the United States have come to four different bilateral agreements before the Paris Agreement on how they would collaborate with each other in the development of new technologies in order to address climate change, and of course, all that has been cancelled. So I think they will still be very open to collaborating with the United States again should that be the policy in the White House.

And what can other countries do? I mean, if we look again, sticking with China and the US for a minute. If that recovery in China specifically is led by coal and heavy industries, and then we look at the US, and as you say, it is due to pull out of the Paris Agreement this November. What can the rest of the world do? I mean, what is your view on that on how other countries should react to big emitters if they’re not, I guess, moving forward, as you say, building forward?

You know, coal, you mentioned coal. I really think that is the number one topic. Are we, now in a post Covid economic recovery period? Are we going to go back to more coal plants and coal mines?

If we do, we are again in a huge problem. Because the fact is, every single scientific analysis has shown that we have no more atmospheric space for coal. No more space for any new coal. All the rest of the coal that is on this planet has to stay underground.

So there is a very, very clear demarcation line that should we move in the direction of more coal, we are going to be heading for a world of three, four, or five degrees, which is a world of constant physical destruction and untold human misery. It is very clear. And I frankly don’t see enough pressure from us civil society on countries that are, of course, tempted to go back to coal because that’s what they’re used to.

The irony of that is that in many of those jurisdictions, renewable energies are already cheaper than coal, and they’re cleaner, and they’re better for our health. They wouldn’t kill the seven million people that are dying from air pollution every year, and of course, it’s better for the health of the planet.

So human health and planetary health are both linked. So it is ironic that having the technologies that we have that can totally compete with very, very dirty coal, that we’re not rushing to get out of coal. We’re not rushing to get out of coal yet.

And I want to look at inequality because this is something that’s been in focus a lot during the pandemic. When we look at racial inequality, social inequality, economic inequality, health inequality, and some of these, of course, have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic itself. Are all these issues sort of interconnected or do you think that they, in a way, do they compete with the climate crisis for policymakers’ attention and government resources, or do you see all of these huge issues, which humanity needs to tackle, do you see them as related somehow?

They’re all totally related. And I go back to a cartoon that I saw maybe two months ago where there was a group, not of children, but of adults, playing on the beach with their back to the ocean, and coming at them was a relatively small wave with the name Covid-19. Behind that wave was a bigger wave, maybe three times as large, called economic crisis. And behind that wave was a wave 10 times as tall and as long called the climate crisis.

So we have actually experienced the convergence of all of these crises. What that cartoon did not have is the undercurrent that is underneath all of this, which you have mentioned, Vanessa. It is the inequality crisis. There is no doubt that the Covid crisis, the economic crisis that we now have of people being without jobs, and the climate crisis, all of them affect disproportionately those that are most vulnerable, and least responsible for those crises.

So it is absolutely, absolutely incontrovertible that all of these crises are linked, that we should be able to link the solutions, and we should be able to put the human being front and centre of the solution of all of these crises because by addressing one, you do address the other. We don’t have the bandwidth, or the financing, or the time to address any of these in sequence to the other. Sequential crisis management is just not going to work. We have to be able to understand that they’re all interlinked, and hence, we have to deal with them in that interconnected fashion.

Christiana Figueres, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you, Vanessa.