Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen is a Costa Rican diplomat. She was appointed Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on May 17, 2010, succeeding Yvo de Boer. Figueres had been a member of the Costa Rican negotiating team since 1995, involved in both UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol negotiations. She has contributed to the design of key climate change instruments. She is a prime promoter of Latin America’s active participation in the Convention, a frequent public speaker, and a widely published author. She won the Hero for the Planet award in 2001.
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I have been working for many years to increase action on climate change around the world and I currently head up the UN Climate Change Secretariat, or UNFCCC. We are working hard on a transformative global climate change agreement in Paris at COP21 this December.
I will be here today around 12 noon Eastern Time in the US / 5:00 p.m. Paris time to answer questions about climate change, the international process towards a new, universal climate agreement and the amazing groundswell of global action we are seeing.
Thanks everyone for not only taking the time to ask questions, but for asking such profound questions. You have challenged me. Thanks for that! I have to go to dinner with the hardworking team who is helping draft the new climate agreement. I hope they give me at least a couple of minutes of non-work. Please keep up with progress in Paris by following me @CFigueres on Twitter or by following the #COP21 hashtag.
Despite the ocean’s critical role in regulating climate—and providing food security and livelihoods for millions of people—international climate negotiations have only minimally considered impacts on the ocean. Will fisheries and the ocean take a back seat to forestry and overall emissions in Paris?
The Climate Change Convention is structured based on emissions of greenhouse gasses within national territories. Despite the fact that oceans are being directly affected by rising temperatures, they are not included in the Convention or in the negotiations due to their transboundary nature. This does not mean we can forget about the oceans. I permanently carry a blue marble with me everywhere I go to remind me of the oceans.
And one more question -- the UN seems to have put a lot of emphasis on the presence of youth, but once at the negotiations, the youth are pretty universally ignored in the process. Last year in Lima at the close of the negotiations, I watched the speaker from YUNGO, who was also from a small island country, give a moving, heart-wrenching account of her country's fight for its very survival under climate change. And at the same time, I watched almost every single negotiator get up and leave during the middle of her speech. So my question is this: why is there such an emphasis on youth presence during the process when the unspoken message is that we are not wanted, and have nothing to contribute to the actual outcomes of the negotiations? What can the international community do in Paris to include youth as more than just tokens?
In my experience, the most powerful influence of young people or any other member of civil society takes place on a 1-to-1 basis in direct conversations with government delegates. Furthermore, that voice is more listened to when it is deeply informed of the issues at hand, when it is well reasoned and when it reaches beyond current comfort but does not venture into the unattainable.
What advice would you give to young people who want to in the future work towards building a greener tomorrow?
I am a physics student who is currently performing my undergraduate research which is on concentrated solar power, but it's hard to know what else I can be doing to further the cause for renewable energy.
You are totally in the right field! CSP is very promising, but as you know still needs a way to go to bring down costs and expand deployment. Please do continue your research and take a leadership role in increasing renewable energy around the world.
Do you consider the agreement of France, UK and China of last week to cooperate in nuclear energy a favorable development, given that it cuts back renewable energies in the UK and locks in a nuclear energy future?
The use of nuclear energy is a decision that is and remains a sovereign responsibility of each country. It is clearly a non-GHG emitting source, however in its use every country will have to consider the other potential consequences as well as the rising cost of additional safety measures that have now been proven to be necessary.
More and more the world is recognizing that maybe the 2 degree goal is not something that’s going to be achieved out of the Paris agreement. INDCs submitted to date fall short. This is something you have recognized yourself via Twitter. Given the purpose of Paris and previous COP meetings was to achieve this 2 degree goal to prevent catastrophic climate change, what hope do you see in the world?
I have been pellucidly clear that the agreement in Paris is not going to reach a 2 degree limit on temperature rise as though that were something we can take off a magical shelf and put on the table. I have been equally clear that getting us on to the 2 degree pathway is entirely possible. This is why the Paris agreement will have two very important components with regard to emission reductions: First, it will harness all the national climate change plans which as a group, if fully implemented, already substantially reduce the BAU growth in emissions. Second, in recognition that this first set of INDCs is a departure point and not a destination, the Paris agreement will construct a path of ever-increasing emission reductions with periodic checkpoints of progress until we get to the 2 degree pathway.
Do you struggle with your lifestyle knowing that you are a contributer to climate change? What about your colleagues, how does this affect your ability to work?
Yes I am very conscious that I am personally a high emitter given the air travel that I have to do for my job. It does seem in congruous to be fully aware of the need to reduce emissions and yet for the time being be such a high emitter myself. As long as I have the responsibilities that I do, I have to incur these emissions but that will not be my lifestyle forever. In the meantime, in order to be climate neutral and support mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries, I have purchased Certified Emissions Reductions from the Adaptation Fund using the Climate Neutral Now program (http://climateneutralnow.org/SitePages/Home.aspx) and I encourage everyone to do the same, as well as making low-emission lifestyle choices.
Ms Figueres, very glad to see you doing an AMA.
As a preface to my question: too often it feels as if global climate change agreements focus entirely on emissions reduction targets, and do very little to explain how those targets will be achieved. For example, with coal expected to continue to be the world's go-to source for electricity for many decades to come, how can any country - for example India - realistically claim it will be able to reduce emissions without significant (and some would say unrealistic levels of) investment and cooperation from business? Perhaps a global price on carbon would help in this regard, but it's sounding like that's less and less likely.
In short, what good are emissions reduction targets without concrete plans for encouraging investment, and indeed ensuring investment, into energy efficiency and low-carbon sources of energy?
All of the INDCs, or national climate plans submitted by 155 countries now, are potential blueprints for investment, each country having identified the sectors that are priority for them. There is much interest now in helping particularly developiung countries take these proposals for policies and measures to the point where they can become investment plans. With $90 trillion set to be invested over the next 15 years in infrastructure and energy there is much potential!
Can you comment on the role of cities in leading climate change adaptation and mitigation? As an aspiring urban planner, I'm especially interested in how the Habitat III conference is connected to COP21. Where should urban planning focus in the future?
The expansion of urbanization and growth of cities in the future is well known. What is less understood is how we can plan and develop cities that are more organically grown and lived in than built and operated. If we look at future cities from the atmosphere’s perspective lived-in gardens, not expansive Lego-scapes.
Ms. Figueres, thanks for doing this. It seems to me that among the negotiators, civil society presence at the COP is a an unnecessary nuisance. In Lima, civil society observers were kicked out of one of the last ADP sessions -- we just saw the same thing happen in Bonn. I have two questions for you:
1) What are YOUR opinions on the presence and role of civil society observers at the COP?
2) What will the secretariat be doing in Paris to ensure transparency and inclusion of observers in the negotiations?
The role of civil society in continuing to encourage ambition expressed in both environmental integrity and social fairness is critical to all our negotiations. At the same time, the UNFCCC is an intergovernmental treaty body designed for the purpose of governments reaching common ground with each other. Over the past 5 years, we have consistently increased the transparency of the intergovernmental process by providing constant and timely information about the proceedings on our website and by encouraging frequent and open stocktaking plenaries. We have also not only allowed but frankly even supported actions on the part of civil society representatives as long as they stay within the agreed rules of conduct.
Do you ever get depressed about our collective failure thus far to take serious measures to halt and/or reverse climate change? If so, what do you do to cheer yourself up?
I don’t get depressed but I do get frustrated with the pace of progress. I stay focused because of my daughters and all the sons and daughters to come.
What role can/should Latin America, and esp. your home country Costa Rica, play in fighting climate change?
Given its extremely clean energy generation, Costa Rica is one of the world’s lowest emitters. However, that has not stopped Costa Rica from assuming its responsibility to identify the mitigation contribution it can make in addition to identifying the urgent adaptation measures it must take. What can Latin America do? Do you want 5 pages on that? But bottom line, every country can and must contribute in the way that makes the most sense to them given their natural resource base, geographic location, emission reduction potential and vulnerability.