TEPIC, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Industry’s dependence on polluting fossil fuels is at odds with a “revolution” in transport and renewable energy, and could stop the world doing a crucial U-turn on rising emissions of climate-changing gases by 2020, a former U.N. climate chief warned.
Christiana Figueres, who oversaw work on the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global warming, now leads “Mission 2020”, an international initiative that seeks to put greenhouse gas emissions on a downward path by 2020.
“We’re definitely not on track with everything to do with heavy industry that continues to depend on intense, high-carbon electricity, and we’re not on track with land use,” said Figueres, former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“So what happens if we don’t get there is we increase our risk and increase the exposure to extreme weather events,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The transport and energy sectors are expected to meet the 2020 deadline as a result of more efficient, cleaner transportation and a plunge in the cost of generating renewable power, Figueres said.
Putting a price on carbon and working out ways to pay for environmental services could also yield benefits, alongside incentives to improve land use by restoring degraded soils or boosting reforestation, she said.
The Paris Agreement set a goal of keeping the rise in average global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, and ideally to 1.5 degrees.
“Science has warned us that if we do not get to that point and begin to bend (the emissions curve), we will have accelerated, negative impacts of climate change,” Figueres said.
Despite the challenges to the Mission 2020 goal, Figueres cautioned against relying on controversial “geoengineering” techniques to try to cool the planet’s temperature.
So-called “negative emissions” technologies - to suck carbon back out of the atmosphere - could involve capturing gases and storing them underground or fertilizing oceans to make them absorb more carbon dioxide.
Other techniques being discussed include mimicking the planet-cooling activity of volcanoes by spraying chemicals into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Many scientists fear those methods could be risky, have limited success and distract from urgent efforts to cut emissions.
“Our biosphere, our forests, our whole plant kingdom is the best (carbon) absorption mechanism we have on this planet - it’s the safest, it doesn’t have any negative impacts and we just have not yet extracted all the benefits,” said Figueres.
“Before we go to industrial or chemical engineering – the side (effects) of which we have no idea, the cost of which we have no idea, I would prefer to first exhaust the possibility of all the technologies we do know.”
Figueres, from Costa Rica, will join female mayors in Mexico City on Monday for the second Women4Climate conference organized by the C40 urban climate change alliance.
The meeting will bring together mayors and business leaders to discuss the role women can play in curbing climate change and making communities more resilient to its impacts.
A push by cities in the United States to join states and corporations in moving forward with action to tackle climate change is a counterbalance to President Donald Trump’s decision to pull his country out of the Paris deal, said Figueres.
“The United States is in a whopping collection of one country, the only country in the world, that has said it would like to leave the Paris Agreement,” she said.
“It has had a minimal impact internationally as no other country has decided to follow suit,” she added.
At the individual level, more people could be spurred to take climate action by highlighting the benefits clean technology can bring, which are poised to be even more significant than with the communications boom, she said.
“People tend to think it’s complex, it’s unfixable, somebody else should do it,” said Figueres. “(But) this is the most exciting thing that has happened to us in a long time.”
Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate/