"Direction of travel is set" in climate fight, says Paris accord architect

LONDON/MADRID (Reuters) - A slew of international commitments to cut carbon emissions including from U.S. President-elect Joe Biden point to a bright future for the fight to save the environment, former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said.

FILE PHOTO: Former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres speaks during a debate in the United Nations General Assembly between candidates vying to be the next U.N. Secretary General at U.N. headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

One of the architects of the 2015 Paris agreement under which nearly 200 countries pledged to curbing emissions, Figueres said she had witnessed “a remarkable geopolitical shift” this year.

She listed a European Union decision to tie environmental criteria to recovery funds for economies ravaged by the coronavirus, China’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and similar pledges by Korea, Japan and South Africa.

“How could I not be optimistic, the direction of travel is set,” she told the Reuters Events Energy Transition Europe summit.

Current U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the Paris deal, but Biden has promised to rejoin. On Monday, he named former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy for the climate.

Figueres praised Biden’s plans to use investments in clean technologies to create jobs.

“The point is there has to be an immediate benefit for those families that are truly hurting under the COVID economic downturn,” she said.

Corporations are also engaging in the race to reach “net zero” - whereby emissions are offset through methods like carbon capture or planting trees - even ahead of the 2050 horizon seen as necessary to meet the Paris targets, Figueres said.

She said a sticking point remained in Brazil, where environmentalists and scientists blame President Jair Bolsonaro for soaring deforestation.

It will be “rather difficult to lift that anchor while Bolsonaro is still there”, Figueres said, although she acknowledged that each country’s progress would be measured by different metrics.

“We have to be able to open ... for very different approaches, as long as everyone is working in the same direction toward decarbonisation.”

Bolsonaro said last week his government would name countries that are importing wood illegally extracted from the Amazon, having developed a way of tracking the timber using isotopes.

Reporting by Axel Threlfall and Isla Binnie; Editing by Alison Williams