A Woman Saving the Planet

c_figueres_v3_400x400This week’s New Yorker leads off with a “Reporter at Large” article by science writer Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction), The Weight of the World: Can one woman get the U.N. to save the planet?  While ostensibly about UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres – answering the subtitled question, “can [she] persuade humanity to save itself?” –  it is just as much about whether the UNFCCC can do its job of preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (laid out in the treaty’s Article 2 Objective).

Kolbert has nailed the nature of Figueres’s job: It “may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none).”  And for those who see her working the UNFCCC meetings, Kolbert’s interview quotes ring true: “I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news – not a single human being.”  Hence Figueres’s contention that “all the nations of the world are now working in good faith to try to reach a climate agreement.”  Even Saudi Arabia, which prefers using “low emissions” rather than “decarbonization,” and South Korea, whose recent INDC filing was, um, underwhelming, at best.

Kolbert has also juxtaposed the international climate change negotiations and macro level emissions data with clear-eyed accuracy.  CO2 in the atmosphere has grown from 350ppm in 1992, when the UNFCCC was opened for signature, to 400ppm in 2015 – despite the Kyoto Protocol’s GHG emissions reduction targets. This is in part fueled by the countries not bound by the Protocol:  the US, which refused to ratify it even though it is the world’s largest cumulative emitter, and China, which had no mitigation obligations under the Protocol in 1997 (and still doesn’t) but now ties the EU on per capita emissions.  The EU surpassed its 2012 reduction targets, with some countries showing what the “conscious uncoupling” of economic growth and CO2 emissions can look like (e.g. Sweden, which has a carbon tax and where the economy grew 55% during the last 25 years, reduced its emissions by 23%). Nonetheless, given the impact of cumulative emissions, only decisive action to peak CO2 soon can keep atmospheric warming below the goal of 2C.

Cue COP21 in Paris and the INDC pledges currently being made.  I cannot agree with Kolbert’s description of the Kyoto Protocol as surviving US non-ratification “in a zombielike state.” The institutional apparatus that the EU enabled the UNFCCC to develop – market mechanisms like emissions reductions trading and energy efficiency and renewable energy investments via the Clean Development Mechanism – helped build models for low carbon development in both developing and developed countries.  China has learned from this experience when lowering its emissions. In addition, the continued engagement in the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol has fostered bilateral negotiations between the US and China, India, and Brazil.  The new “bottom up” approach of requiring all countries to make “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) builds on these ideas, institutions, and relationships developed during the last 20 years of international climate negotiations.  While this process component is easy to overlook, it’s more sharp-eyed and active than any zombie I know.