Video: What Happens After Paris?
Figueres on the Next Climate Steps

Christiana Figueres, who has led global climate talks as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC since 2010, says the climate agreement reached during the recent Paris talks was just a step in what will be a long, hard process. During a visit to Yale she discussed what must come next.
The recent Paris climate accord was the result of work by thousands of players from across the world — including dozens from the Yale community. But no one played a more central role at the historic negotiations than Christiana Figueres, who has piloted the global climate talks since 2010.
christiana figueres un
Christiana Figueres
Figueres, who as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) spent six years convincing nearly 200 countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, has called the climate accord a “historical achievement.” But she also knows that the hard work has just begun.

On April 25 she discussed the urgent new phase in the fight to curb global warming during a talk at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).

The Paris Agreement, Figueres said, sets “an incontrovertible new direction” toward a cleaner energy future. But now, she added, everyone has to do the work to get there. 

"We have actually been able to set a new course on paper,” she said. “[But] that is no more than resetting the GPS. Now we really need to make that happen. We have spent years creating a new vision and now, I argue, we have to work two or three times as hard to make the new reality as laudable as the vision we created. That is going to be much harder.”

And they have to do it quickly, she said. “We have five years to be able to make the difference, to change from a high-carbon society to one that is ... low-carbon, high-resilient,” she said. “Because if we do not make that change in that five years, the lock-in of emissions, the lock-in of technology, the lock-in of finance is such that we are going to be loading the atmosphere to the point where we will no longer be able to eradicate poverty.”

Her talk, “A Future Free from Fear: Why We Must Act on Climate Change Today,” was followed by a conversation with Daniel Esty, Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at F&ES and Yale Law School. 
In anticipation of her visit, we asked Figueres to describe what the next phase of the climate fight will require, how the global community can achieve the promise of Paris, and the role institutions like Yale can play in the transition to a clean-energy economy.

There was so much optimism coming out of Paris, but of course in many ways the agreement reached during the COP21 talks was just the beginning. What steps are most urgently needed right now, and who is most urgently needed to act?  

Christiana Figueres: First and foremost, nations need to sign and join the Paris Agreement. That needs to begin in earnest when the agreement opens for signature in April in New York. Nations must also begin the crucial conversations about the suite of policies that will enable their country to achieve the national climate change action plan submitted as part of the Paris Agreement. Additionally, we need to see urgent action continue from businesses, investors, cities, and regions. These groups were advocates of ambitious agreement in Paris alongside faith groups that recognize our moral imperative to act and others with a critical interest such as those responsible for peace and security in this world.

Support from these key stakeholders was crucial in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris and remains integral to meeting the climate change challenge. Now, with the clarity that governments will take action at the national level, these groups must forge ahead with their own climate action in support of countries and in their own self-interest.

You have indicated that your lecture will focus on a future “free from fear.” What fears are you talking about specifically? And can these fears be allayed by acting on climate change?

Figueres: Without sharing any spoilers from my lecture, I can share the fundamental concept that I would like everyone who attends to take home with them. Acting on climate change now opens the door for a better future not just for the planet, but for the 7 billion people living on it and the billions more we know will join us in coming years. Many of these people live with fear about the future. There are very valid fears about water scarcity, the ability to produce food, exposure to stronger and more frequent extreme weather events, and loss of the natural resources that underpin the global economy. For some like the low-lying island states, there is an existential fear that we may not act in time to save their homes from encroaching seas. Acting on climate change now can go a long way towards reducing future risk and keeping these fears manageable, if not erasing them altogether.

How will it be possible to address the global climate challenge when there remains such a lack of commitment from critical stakeholders in places like the U.S., one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters? And, can a solution be reached without the U.S.?

Figueres: The Paris Agreement unites the world, including the U.S. and all major emitters in commitment to act on climate change. Now, governments must turn the commitments they have made into concrete action. I am confident that the U.S., alongside all 189 countries that submitted national climate action plans, will work hard to meet their commitment, as these are commitments to their people, to the global community and to future generations. In this effort, we will rise to meet the climate change challenge. But, it will be easier to meet this challenge if every country acts with the urgency that science says is necessary and acts in the collaborative spirit that made Paris a success.

To turn this on its head a bit, the more interesting question is perhaps whether or not the U.S. can forge ahead with its own low-emission future or will they choose to turn back the clock and continue to pursue business models that rely on last century’s fuels, unsustainable development patterns and the depletion of nature-based assets.

So much of the discussion in Paris highlighted the important role of sub-national players, including cities and businesses, in battling climate change. What role must these stakeholders play going forward — whether as part of or separate from the UN process?

Figueres: For the Paris Agreement to be a success, it must spark real world and real economy action that bends the emissions curve and drives emissions downward. This represents a transformation of how we grow and develop. Cities and businesses must be active in shaping this transformation. Fortunately, action by these groups is an emergent trend. Many cities recognize that they are vulnerable to climate change now and that their populations will grow as urbanization accelerates. Businesses are waking up to climate risks and seeing bottom line improvement from acting on climate. Moving forward, the businesses and cities that were instrumental in agreeing to an ambitious Paris Agreement must help more and more sub-national and private sector actors become agents of transformational change.

What role can academic institutions like Yale University play in achieving these important climate targets?

Figueres: As an institute of higher learning, Yale University is developing the leaders who will be at the forefront of this transformation of growth and development. Truly addressing climate change requires rethinking almost every facet of every industry in every country on this planet. This will require innovation on an unprecedented scale, a planetary scale. By helping students develop the fresh ideas and solution-oriented approaches that are needed to create transformative change, Yale is poised to become part of this transformation.

This generation of young people is the first that will enter the global economy with comprehensive knowledge of climate change and it is crucial that students learn how they can help meet the challenge we face.

After several years leading the UN climate negotiations, what did the Paris agreement mean to you? Are you more or less optimistic now than when you first accepted this position?

Figueres: The Paris Agreement means a lot to me. It is the culmination of years of hard work — by not just myself, but also by the dedicated staff at the UN climate change secretariat, by our many friends and colleagues in national delegations from across the world and by the countless individuals working on this issue in intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations. I believe it is safe to say that seeing this good work come to fruition in Paris has energized everyone to redouble their efforts on this issue. Paris means a step forward has been taken at the global level.

When I first accepted the position of UNFCCC Executive Secretary, such a step seemed impossible. I am more optimistic now than ever before because this step forward makes transformative action on climate change almost inevitable.
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: April 4, 2016
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.