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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

UN Climate Negotiators Meet in China

Air Date: Week of

Christiana Figueres is the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

Delegates from 150 nations meet in China for climate negotiations. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN climate talks, about her expectations for an international agreement, given the disappointing results at the Copenhagen summit last year.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The Obama Administration plans to put solar panels on the roof of the White House - or rather, back on the White House roof. President Jimmy Carter put them up there first in 1976, with an eye to the future.

CARTER: In the year 2000 the solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap efficient energy. A generation from now this solar heater can either be a curiosity – a museum piece, an example of a road not taken -- or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.

The documentary “A Road Not Taken” chronicles what happened to those White House solar panels. Today, one is a museum piece at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. President Reagan had the panels removed in 1986. Now President Obama has told the Department of Energy to buy new solar panels for the executive mansion, but US manufacturers will face stiff competition from Chinese companies.

China has become a major provider of solar panels because of high internal demand and low labor costs. This past week the Chinese city of Tienjin was showcasing its clean energy technology for delegates from around the world. Negotiators gathered there for the final UN climate meeting before the summit in Cancun at the end of the year. The last summit in Copenhagen last December ended in confusion and frustration without a new international treaty.

But there’s an ancient Chinese proverb, “Failure is the mother of success.” And so Christiana Figueres, the new executive secretary of the UN’s climate talks, says now she’s cautiously optimistic.

FIGUERES: I think the major difference is that we all went to Copenhagen with the ambition of having one huge legally binding agreement that somehow would miraculously solve all climate change problems. And I think the big lesson learned is that there is no such magic bullet.

This is a major effort that the global community has embarked on, which is the transformation of the structure of the economy, and that’s not going to happen overnight. The purpose here, for Cancun, is to identify the cornerstones of what will become a new green revolution and new economy, but to do it in a much more realistic way.

GELLERMAN: Cancun of course is the big meeting in Mexico scheduled for the end of November, beginning of December. But are you saying that you don’t anticipate or expect a new international agreement to be added to the Kyoto Protocol which lapses in, what, 2012?

FIGUERES: Let me put it this way: I think the conclusion is that you cannot build a tall building without setting the foundation. And, last year, they tried to build a tall building without having any foundation.

This year countries have been focusing and are quite eager to set the foundations in Cancun, upon which they will then build. There are many countries that are still very committed to building the tall building-- which would be a legally binding agreement.

GELLERMAN: Well, lets parse the problems. Foundations are built out of concrete, what are the concrete- the expectations that you have- for this?

FIGUERES: First, the very important objective of capturing the commitments that have been made during this year, but that have not been officialized.

We have all industrialized countries having made commitments as to what targets they would be able to commit to with respect to their emissions reductions. We also have 38 developing countries that have made public their intent to manage their carbon growth. Since we are in China, let me just share with you the Chinese commitment.

China has a national climate change program- they’re very serious about this, and they’re doing this because of two major reasons: A. because they know that it is good for their own economy and their own growth; and B. because they know that it is their responsibility toward the rest of the world.

GELLERMAN: China and the United States produce, what, 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases- is the United States doing enough?

Christiana Figueres is the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC.

FIGUERES: No, sadly the United States is really not doing enough. The United States is in a, I would say, in a very sad situation, where, over eight years it did not participate in any of these global efforts. The United States is vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, as we have seen recently the reliance on fossil fuels led to a very dangerous spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So, the United States is not exempt from the negative impacts of climate. On the other hand, the United States could very well be addressing climate change in a responsible manner as a very important opportunity to give a boost to its clean technologies. The green race is on, and the United States is not a part of that race. In fact, it is remarkably absent from that race and is letting developing countries take the lead.

GELLERMAN: I guess China spent, what, two times as much on clean energy as the United States.

FIGUERES: Good example. They are having one million new jobs being created in the clean energy sector. Because China knows that it is to its competitive advantage to prepare now for what we will undeniably see, which is a low carbon future.

GELLERMAN: You have an incredibly hard job and you sound cautiously optimistic. I’m wondering- how are you holding up?

FIGUERES: Wonderful! It’s not hard, I have a passion for this topic. Actually, it’s the most inspiring job in the world.

GELLERMAN: That’s Christiana Figueres, the new head of the UN climate talks speaking to us from Tienjin, China.



United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


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