Climate Change: “Now Comes the Hard Part”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

With the Paris Agreement about to be open for signature, Christiana Figueres—the United Nations official who has shepherded the global climate negotiation process for the past several years—reminded the OAS Member states that the challenges of implementation are just beginning.

Reversing the effects of climate change will be a long-term process, but countries need to act now in order to meet the goals they adopted in December, Figueres said. While the Paris Agreement does not provide a final solution to the problem of climate change, it does establish “a clear roadmap of where we are going.”

“Now comes the hard part,” she added, “which is implementation and realizing the vision we have in the Paris Agreement.”

Figueres has been involved in climate change negotiations for more than 10 years—first as a member of the Costa Rican negotiating team, and as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since 2010. She addressed a joint meeting of the OAS Permanent Council and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development (CIDI) on April 8, where she gave an overview of the landmark climate accord, which aims to reduce global carbon emissions by building on the national objectives determined by each country. Given the “sad reality” that those efforts would fall short—the scientific consensus is that global temperatures must not exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the agreement also includes a process by which countries will review and strengthen their national commitments every five years.

The UN official stressed that the goals of the Paris Agreement have been determined by science, not politics, “and what science has determined is that, collectively, by the second half of this century we will need to have again established the ecological balance we had lost and not emit more emissions than the Earth can absorb naturally.”

According to Figures, one of the biggest challenges countries will face as they start to implement the Paris Agreement is separating economic growth from increased greenhouse gas emissions. To eradicate poverty and improve people’s lives, developing countries need to grow, she said—but that growth can no longer go hand in hand with rising emissions.

The greenhouse gases that are accumulating in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise, “are the biggest enemies of economic development, of economic growth,” said Figueres, who explained that negative impacts—such as hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters—force countries to keep rebuilding their basic infrastructure. She said developing countries will need extensive support to bring about economic growth and at the same time cut emissions—a combination she acknowledged will not be easy.

“It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely critical for the protection of vulnerable populations and developing countries,” she added. The world’s most developed economies, which bear the greatest responsibility for global warming and have the greatest means to address the problem, must show leadership on this issue.

“That leadership by developed countries has to happen both in terms of the reduction of their own emissions, so that they do not continue contributing to the problem, but also in terms of the financial and technical support they must share with developing countries for them to adapt and to mitigate greenhouse gases,” she said.

Adopted on December 12, 2015, by 195 countries, the Paris Agreement will be signed by numerous heads of state and government at a ceremony at UN headquarters on April 22, 2016 and it will remain open for signature for a year. The accord will enter into effect once it is ratified by at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Figueres, who said it seemed likely that the agreement could enter into force earlier than the 2020 target date, noted that the two countries with the highest levels of emissions—the United States and China—had committed to sign the Paris Agreement this month and formally join it this year. Some island states, she added, will attend the signing ceremony with their instruments of ratification already in hand.

“An Existential Threat”

The urgency of addressing climate change is clear, Figueres and other speakers at the meeting emphasized. For small island states and low-lying coastal areas in particular, increasingly severe natural disasters “continue to wreak havoc on our infrastructure and on our communities,” noted the OAS Assistant Secretary General, Ambassador Nestor Mendez.

“The international community now fully recognizes that climate change is one of the greatest challenges for development and prosperity, and is an existential threat to our people and our planet”.

In opening remarks, the Chair of CIDI, and Ambassador of Colombia to the OAS, Andrés González Díaz, talked about some of the measurable effects that are already occurring due to climate change. Eight percent of the world’s animal species have gone extinct, and the planet is losing 12 million hectares of arable land per year—23 hectares per minute. Since 1880, the average global temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius, and nine of the ten warmest years in that period have been recorded since the year 2000.

Ambassador González Díaz said he hoped the joint Permanent Council-CIDI meeting would help the countries think about the steps ahead and about how the Organization of American States can best support the region as it prepares to implement the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In that regard, the Assistant Secretary General said the OAS is working with other inter-American agencies to improve coordination and more effectively assist countries in their mitigation and adaptation efforts and sustainable development programs. The OAS already has a number of tools available to address this issue, including the Inter-American Program on Sustainable Development and the Inter-American Strategy for Public Participation in Decision Making for Sustainable Development.

“Moreover, in the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas we have a solid foundation for hemispheric cooperation in promoting the formulation and application of policies and strategies that take into account mitigation and adaptation to climate change”.

Ambassador Mendez stressed the importance of reducing vulnerability, building resilience, and making social investments, noting that such goals are in sync with the Organization of American States’ rights-based agenda. “We should recognize that those most affected by climate change will be those countries that are least able to invest in adaptation measures, as well as vulnerable groups such as children, women, the elderly, and persons with disabilities”.

For her part, Figueres talked about the need to see climate change mitigation and the promotion of sustainable development as “two sides of the same coin.” Across the board, the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders last September have a clear climate dimension, whether the subject is clean energy, sustainable cities, health and well-being, or food security.

“From a country perspective, we need to understand that all the climate issues are intimately linked to all the national development issues,” she said.

Following the presentations, the Vice Chair of CIDI and Ambassador of Dominica to the OAS, Hubert Charles, opened the floor to discussion by the member states.

“There are actually very few occasions where the international community comes together in an almost unanimous fashion to respond to a threat, as was the case in Paris,” Ambassador Charles said. “But,” he added, “the challenge is not so much the agreement but the implementation of the agreement,” as countries begin to address the threats posed by climate change across different sectors. “No longer is it possible for us to look at economic development without looking at the climate change effects.”