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U.N. Chief: Paris Convention Represents 'Turning Point' In Climate Policy


At the end of this month, nearly 200 countries will come together in Paris to try to agree on how to fight climate change. This is the first major U.N. summit on controlling greenhouse gas emissions in more than five years. It is a huge test of international diplomacy. And the woman leading this effort the U.N. joins us now. She is Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: Hi, Ari. Thanks very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: You have been at the center of this effort for five years. What keeps you awake at night?

FIGUERES: Well, what keeps me awake at night is this inherent paradox that we have, which is that the advance of policy, whether it is at sub-national, nationaL or, in this case, international level, is a gradual advance. On the other hand, and paradoxically, that gradual advance of policy needs to respond to the urgency of the problem. For climate change perspectives, it needs to be done within the next five to 10 to, maximum, 15 years, so that paradox...

SHAPIRO: So you're saying the kind of change humanity has to make is the kind of change that humans have never made in the history of our existence as a species.

FIGUERES: Yes. The answer is yes.

SHAPIRO: And you're convinced that it can be done?

FIGUERES: Yes because, you know, just - let's look very quickly at the leap that the information and technology sector has had. Who would have believed, you know, that we have the reach with cellular telephony that we have now way surpassing anything that landlines could ever have done? It is fantastic for me to go to, you know, small, little, poor, developing countries and find a woman way out there in some little hut, picking up her cell phone and doing cell banking. That is the kind of transformation that we need to have in the energy sector. Is it possible - yes. We have most of the technology that we need. We have the capital. We're moving on the policy. We just need to focus and understand the urgency of this. And yes, I do think that we, as humanity, will be able to address this challenge.

SHAPIRO: You have talked about the business opportunities presented by clean energy technology, but is the business community really on board with what has to be done?

FIGUERES: Well, understandably, you have some corporations that are still trying to figure out how do they transform themselves. In particular, fossil fuel companies are having the hardest time because they have a huge amount of pressure to be able to figure out how do they transform themselves from fossil fuel companies to energy companies - you know, a complete reframing of their business model. But that's, you know, one sector. Every day, I am surprised to see how many more companies are joining this search for - how do we reinvent ourselves, and how do we bring this forward? And I have to underline; they're doing it because of the self-interest of business profitability not just now but in the long run.

SHAPIRO: The United States has said that by 2030, it will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent compared to 2005 levels. If the United States falls down on that commitment, where is the accountability?

FIGUERES: The accountability is first to itself but also to all of the other nations.

SHAPIRO: So does it just mean public shaming?

FIGUERES: There's no, you know, environmental police running around with a pistol pointed at anybody's head. That is definitely not the case. But I think the interesting thing to understand here is, these climate change plans that have already been put forward - we already have 157 of them - they stem from a very deep analysis and cross-sectoral consultation inside each of the countries that have presented them, yes, certainly to obey the global climate change agenda and move that forward, but primarily because it is in their national interest, because they can see that this actually gives them much better air quality. It gives them better transportation. It gives them better food security, water security because they are understanding that we can no longer continue down the path of increasing the risk of non-action. And that is the very interesting turning point where Paris will actually not create that turning point. It will mark it.

SHAPIRO: Christiana Figueres, good luck in Paris, and thank you for talking with us.

FIGUERES: Thank you very much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Christiana Figueres is executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Put more simply, she is running the effort to get nearly 200 countries around the world on the same page limiting greenhouse gases. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.