Keeping the world focused on climate change is non-stop job for UN climate chief

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – The job of organising diplomats into a global agreement on climate change went from hard to impossible this year for Patricia Espinosa.

As the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), she’s responsible for marshaling the climate conferences that steer the world’s governments toward lower emissions, which culminate in an annual meeting.

This year’s event, known as COP26, was supposed to be a landmark for new commitments from countries aimed at keeping the world under the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement. With the pandemic, the meeting has been postponed for year until November 2021, and climate change has dropped down on the global priority list.

Espinosa’s job now is to keep climate action front and centre, despite trade disputes, major protests in the United States and other pressing issues.

Today, on World Environment Day, she’ll launch “Race to Zero”, a UN initiative to rally non-state actors-including nearly 1,000 businesses, almost 500 local governments, and a few dozen investors to push for climate action.

In conversation with Bloomberg Green, Espinosa spoke about why the Paris agreement is still the best way to conduct climate diplomacy, what can be done to bring fossil fuel companies onboard, and how the economic recovery can be harnessed to boost climate action.

Q Given the stories of failures at the annual COP meeting, do you think the Paris agreement and the way we pursue climate diplomacy is still relevant?

A Yes, absolutely. There is really no other forum where humanity can ask: Where are we? How are we doing? Are we going forward? It lifts the most vulnerable people and the most vulnerable countries, who have had a very small impact on global emissions. But they are the most interested in seeing good progress in our climate talks.

Q Nearly five years on, what do you think is the Paris agreement’s biggest success?

A It’s a resounding success that every country came together and said, “Yes, we all have a responsibility to address this problem, because otherwise it will continue to affect all of us.” The goals set under the Paris agreement are voluntary. But at the end, if you look at the multilateral system, it is basically voluntary. So why do countries commit to these goals and plans? Because it is in their own interests. We have only one planet.

Q With the COP postponed, what will you be able to do with 12 extra months?

A You say we have 12 extra months, but the reality is that we have no time to waste in addressing climate change. So it is 12 extra months to prepare the conference, but it is not 12 months to relax.

One of the big challenges is how to bring the conversation of climate change into the conversation of recovering from the pandemic. If we get it right, I really believe that this is one of those historic moments when humanity can change the direction in which it was going.

The exhaustive use of resources and unlimited consumption is not sustainable. Our model needs to be reassessed and reoriented. The recovery from the pandemic and addressing climate change are not opposite things. They actually can and should be addressed together.

Q When governments look for advice on stimulus, they’re looking more to the International Energy Agency than the United Nations.

A I feel encouraged because the latest reports from the IEA are, probably for the first time, very much acknowledging the challenge of climate change. Even within the oil and gas sector, we see an evolution. This is about their survival. This transition has started and it is taking place-not at the pace that we need, but it has started.

Q There’s a growing criticism that fossil fuel companies may be influencing the outcomes of the annual COP meeting. How do you respond to that charge?

A Our only tool is dialogue and mutual understanding and inclusiveness. That means everybody needs to be a part of the conversation. The energy sector has shaped the world to a great extent. If we do not get them on the board, our chances to be successful are really very limited.

It’s not that we have the representatives of the oil companies participating. The claims are that, behind some participants, there are some of these interests represented. There is no way that they directly can influence decision making.

Q How can you get the fossil fuel companies to do the right thing on climate?

A I try to engage with the oil and gas sector. I’ve been participating in the OPEC meeting in Vienna. I really appreciate that they want to listen to what I have to say. I participated a number of times in CERAWeek in Houston. I know that probably a lot of the people in those audiences are not in agreement with what I’m saying. I’m willing to take the challenge.

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