Figueres: "More emissions mean more poverty"

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Earth Journalism Network, San José, Costa Rica

“We can move to a world of more emissions and more poverty or to a one of less emissions and less poverty,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, during a webinar discussing the Paris climate agreement and opportunities for Latin America. The activity was organized by LatinClima, Earth Journalism Network and the Regional Climate Change and Decisions Making Center.

Image courtesy: Arand Kuester/Creative Commons

According to Figueres, critical decisions must be made in the next five to ten years to separate economic growth from the release of greenhouse gases in order to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. Latin America, she said, is a region that has been able to achieve such growth without major increases in emission rates thanks to resources such as water for electricity production and forest coverage, which is an advantage.

But it’s not all positive news. The region stands at a crossroads following a major economic boom that sees the use of fossil fuels, and emissions rates on the rise. Poor governments in countries that are vulnerable to climate change must start decarbonizing their economies and become more resilient, according to Figueres, or face spending money only to respond to natural disasters and their resulting economic impacts.

“For 2050, we need to arrive to two tons (of C02 e) per capita as a global average and Latin America is close to this number, but if we follow the actual carbonization patron, we could arrive to even a 10 tons per capita,” she pointed out. Important challenges for the region in this sense are transportation, energy efficiency and land use (i.e. forest coverage and agriculture).

The Paris Agreement’s main purpose is to reestablish by the second half of the century the ecological balance between what we are emitting and what the planet is capable of absorbing, called zero net. According to Figueres, a way to move forward for Latin American countries is “to go directly to renewable energy as the base of economic growth.” Already, 90% of all new energy installations worldwide in 2015 were renewable because technologies such as solar and wind power are becoming more competitive than fossil fuels.

Countries in the region that have show leadership, she said, are Brazil and Costa Rica in carbon markets, and Mexico and Peru in the organization of key climate conferences.

But we are still not doing enough.

The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) presented by countries prior to the Paris talks are the framework of the resulting agreement, but Figueres said that more needs to be done. “No one country, including those of Latin America,” she said, “is doing enough according to science. But all are doing whatever they can in this moment.”

That is why the 189 INDCs presented to date are being considered “the first step” of what economies can and must do to limit global warming, but these commitments will be evaluated and revised every five years to see how necessary decarbonization levels can be reached.

In contrast with the conference in Copenhagen where it was not possible to reach a universally binding agreement on limiting emissions, Figueres said that the purpose of the Paris climate talks was not to impose a global goal and distribute responsibilities, but to “invite countries to make an internal revision of their economies and their political, economic and technological reality in order to identify where they will benefit and can build globally.”

For Figueres, the Paris Agreement would not have be reached without the support of the private sector, including investors and civil society because there was a mobilization of all sectors in the countries on a scale that did not happen in Copenhagen.

But the key message, she said, is to understand that economic descarbonization and increased resilience in the medium and long term “is a benefit for all.”