Christiana Figueres, who led the original negotiations of the Paris agreement in her former role as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has called US president Donald Trump’s move last week to withdraw the United States from the international Paris agreement a “political message.”
In Hong Kong for a sustainable building conference, Figueres on Monday spoke to Quartz about how to read Trump’s decision, the economic case for sticking with the shift to green energy, and how China is moving forward on the issue. Here are her remarks, shortened and lightly edited.
You’ve previously told Quartz the pull out is a “political message.” Can you expand on that?
CF: The fact is that the United States would be able to officially communicate its wish to withdraw on Nov. 5, 2019. And then it would take one year to withdraw. So the announcement that we heard on Thursday has no legal basis. Therefore the announcement is a political announcement and I think the political announcement is a two-part announcement.
It’s an announcement to Mr. Trump’s political base in the United States that is unfortunately being misled with respect to job creation and which sectors of the energy industry are the ones that can create jobs. It is definitely not coal. The bottom line of the internal message is that Mr. Trump would like to promise jobs that do not exist and will not exist no matter what he says or does. Those coal jobs just cannot return.
And the other message to the international community is a message of lack of willingness to work with other countries for the benefit of the United States and the world.
The US is actually going to be staying in the treaty, at least for a few years, but it’s not going to cooperate with the treaty. Is that almost more of a negative example than if it was just going to get out and be outside?
It depends on what they do. And it’s really very unpredictable what they’re going to do. They have to stay legally in the Paris agreement but they could choose simply to not to go to the meetings. And I think actually after the very adamant announcement that we heard last Thursday, the logical derivation of that statement is that the United States would legally be part of the agreement but would not participate and would not go to the negotiations. But that remains to be seen.
You worked so long on these negotiations. What was it like last week to see that message from the US?
Honestly, I’m not concerned at all. To the contrary I’m quite heartened about the reaction and the very visible deepened commitment of the US economy and of the international community to the decarbonization process. So I’m not concerned. I’m just saddened because when a great power loses leadership and loses political credibility, that’s actually a sad scene.
Looking back to Copenhagen [global climate talks in 2009], there was this bitterness and divide between the North and South countries. Now we see China saying cooperation on this is really important, putting money towards renewable energies and saying it wants to take a leadership role on this issue. How did China get from there to here?
First, it is absolutely critical that the historical responsibility of the global north be recognized. That historical responsibility of having caused climate change is not ideology, it’s not a religion, it’s not a belief, it is a physical fact and nobody can dispute that, and that is a golden pillar of the climate convention and of the Paris agreement.
Having said that, the important part of the historical responsibility is that it is historical. It is not the future responsibility. And I think China has been very wise in understanding both. Understanding, certainly, the historical responsibility of the United States and the global North but also understanding that toward the future there is a much broader sharing of the responsibility and of the opportunity. And I think what China is reacting to here is not just the responsibility but the opportunity that is being offered to any country that wants to decarbonize and be an active part of the 21st-century economy.
Do you want to expand on that? I guess you’re talking about jobs in renewable energy?
There are already 700,000 jobs in the renewable energy industry in the United States and China is projecting millions of jobs just in China for renewable energies because it is a burgeoning industry, because it starts from a very low base and very quickly exponentially it goes up. So yes, there’s a huge opportunity in job creation, in training, it’s a whole new sector for young people coming up who will have the opportunity to be trained as engineers, as technicians, as urban planners that will be responsible for the creation of the 21st-century reality. So in terms of job creation, it’s definitely there.
China is taking more responsibility in terms of climate change, and to lead even in the next decades, and maybe China is prepared for that. But some might argue that China is vowing to take more responsibility largely to boost its reputation on the global stage, while others are saying it’s hard for China to take the lead without the US. What’s your view?
I don’t think the US has anything to do with China’s stand on climate change. What China is reacting to, they are reacting to the opportunity to clean their air, they are reacting to the opportunity to create millions of jobs and to make their products and their services competitive in the 21st century. Even if the United States were being responsible, China would still do this. It is about China’s interest.
You argue so strongly about China’s interests and the many opportunities China is able to seize. Can we expect in the future that companies, even without Chinese government support, would be self-directed and able to lead the change?
I don’t think those two things will be separate. I think the Chinese government and the public sector enterprises in China will move hand in hand with the private sector enterprises with the full support of the Chinese government. We know that the central bank of China has been very, very clear in saying that they are taking a leadership role in the creation of financial instruments of green finance, and we know that the banks in China have received a very clear mandate that that is what they are going to do, they are continuously now creating those instruments for green finance because they want to green their economy and that goes both for the private companies in China as well as for the public enterprises, with the support of the federal government.
Following on from that. We see major strides in renewable energies, electric car subsidies and pricing financial risk from climate change. Is there anything else you see China has moved really fast on?
I think there’s a whole host of things. A, it’s financial instruments. B, it’s the carbon market that’s been in pilot stage in seven cities but will go national by December this year. C, it’s building regulations that continue to increase in strength in the 13th five-year plan. It’s the commitment to electrify transportation with five million electric vehicles going on to the roads. Obviously, energy generation, China is the number one producer of solar panels, and using most of the panels within the Chinese economy, not even having to sell them, because the market is so large. And China is number two or maybe even already number one in wind turbine energy, also using them. They’re investing 360 billion dollars into renewable energy by 2020, whether it is energy generation, energy efficiency, transportation, green finance, and the carbon market. It’s a pretty good menu.