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United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Q&A with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres: The UNFCCC
and the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, November 2011 (for
What is the UNFCCC?
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was established in 1992 to tackle
the defining challenge of our time. The Convention has near universal membership, with
194 signatory countries plus the European Union, as a signatory in its own right. The
ultimate goal of the Convention is to stabilize the level of greenhouse gas emissions in
the world’s atmosphere at a level which would prevent dangerous climate change. But
the UN Climate Convention also deals with the central issue of enabling people to adapt
to the inevitable effects of climate change, along with a host of other issues.
What makes the UNFCCC different to other environmental agreements?
The UNFCCC is not fundamentally different from other environmental agreements.
But climate change does present a complex challenge, impacting all areas of society
and the way the entire global economy works. So it is important to keep in mind that
climate change will not be solved in a day, and all countries need to continuously raise
the collective global level of ambition to deal with it, step by inexorable step. On the
other hand, we are also confronted with the hard physics of climate change, and the
international scientific community has very clearly indicated that there is a window of
opportunity the world must use now if it is to prevent the worst ravages of climate
change. Fortunately, there is a sense amongst governments that the speed and scale of
action to respond to the challenge must be rapidly increased. So governments need to
take the next big step in Durban at this year’s UN Climate Conference.
How is climate change affecting the health of people around the world,
particularly the poor and vulnerable and, above all, in Africa?
Climate change is already a grim reality, and increasingly so. The effects of climate
change are clearly visible in the form of ever more frequent and extreme weather
events, such as storms and droughts and rising sea levels. Obviously, Africa is one of
the regions most affected by climate change. The increase in temperatures has already
allowed the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever to areas and cities
which were until quite recently protected from them, due to their geographical locations
or altitude. The vast majority of African farmers depend entirely on rainfall for their
crops, so any increase in temperature can have dramatic effects on crop production.
The nexus of food, water and climate is fragile and currently under threat.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
What is the UN hoping to get out of the UN Climate Change Conference in
There are two main tasks that the conference can accomplish. One relates to building
the institutions that will help support the developing country response to climate change.
At the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun at the end of last year, governments
agreed the most comprehensive package ever to help developing countries build their
own clean energy futures and also adapt to climate change. These institutions comprise
a Technology Mechanism to promote clean energy and adaptation-related technologies,
an Adaptation Framework to coordinate international cooperation to help developing
countries better protect themselves from climate change impacts, and a Green Climate
Fund. The Technology Mechanism and the Adaptation Committee need to be
established so that they can start working in 2012, and the first phase of the design of
the Green Climate Fund needs be completed. The second pressing task for
governments is to answer the question of how they will move forward together to
achieve their agreed goal to limit the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees
Celsius, and how to review progress towards that goal between 2013 and 2015. In
Cancun, governments agreed to make this Review as a reality check both on their
progress to cut emissions and on whether an even lower global temperature rise target
would have to be considered in light of emerging science.
What role will the Kyoto Protocol play in Durban?
A decision on the future of the Kyoto Protocol will be a central part of the Durban
outcome. The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding treaty the world presently has to
combat climate change, and it is important that governments safeguard what they had
worked on so long to agree and develop, and what has proven effective. This includes,
for example, the rules that guarantee transparency of effort to reduce greenhouse
gases and market mechanisms that allow industrialized countries to partly achieve their
emission reduction goals by investing in clean technology in developing countries. At
the same time, a global climate change framework under the broader Convention which includes all signatories - is evolving but needs more time before it can be fully
operational. Resolving this involves creating robust and transparent accounting and
reporting of national efforts but the decision at a policy level of when and how to
participate is a political decision and that requires clear leadership from a high level. I
believe that common ground can be found and the right political decisions can be made.
Realistically, what potential is there to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the
coming decades?
November 2011
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
I am confident that the world can make enormous strides in reducing greenhouse gas
emissions over the next years. Most of the technology we need is already there; the
private sector is increasingly engaged and needs to take on a key role in applying those
technologies. The renewable energy sectors of almost all countries have seen rapid
growth, and there is a major trend towards energy efficiency. There is a growing
understanding that going green is a motor for new jobs and that whoever invests in
clean technology now will have a competitive advantage over others. It isn’t
exaggerated to say that the world is at the beginning of a new industrial revolution and
poised to shift dramatically towards a low-carbon economy. But that revolution will go
faster if governments and the private sector work hand-in-hand to build climate policies
that support environmentally sound business goals, and vice-versa. Because of this, I
am looking forward to showcasing successful public-private partnerships in Durban,
many of which have benefitted the urban poor, not least in Africa.
November 2011