As the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres is the most sought after climate change leader in the world today. The UNFCCC is currently organising the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima to come up with a universal climate change draft agreement for final negotiations in Paris in 2015. Ms Figueres took time off from her busy schedule to respond to Rajiv Tikoo on a wide range of issues.

Excerpts from the interview: 

December 1, 2014

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

With various countries making pledges to cut down on emissions and contribute to climate financing, what would be your priority to arrive at a desirable climate change draft agreement in the run up to the concluding conference in Paris in 2015?

Christiana Figueres: The Paris agreement is a universal agreement—every country has agreed to contribute to its success.  That means by around the end of the first quarter of 2015, all nations will need to have submitted their support to Paris in the form of what are termed Intentionally Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

Some of those are already coming through, and well in advance of the planned submission period. For example, we have had contributions from the European Union and more recently China and the United States. With over 190 Parties to the Convention, clearly a lot more contributions have to come in and we look forward to ambitious submissions from all governments over the coming weeks and months.

Finance is also clearly important, including public finance to the Green Climate Fund for it to be able to leverage considerably larger amounts from the private sector. The recent pledges by governments, amounting to just under $10 billion is a good start, but the door is wide open to all nations to contribute in ways that reflect the size of their economies and ability to provide finance -- both here in Lima and throughout 2015.

What's a realistic outcome expected from the Climate Change Conference in Lima?

Christiana Figueres: There are many dovetailing outcomes that can build from Lima to Paris, so let me touch on a few:

Clarity on the INDCs—what they should contain given that while developed countries are setting economy-wide emission reductions targets, developing country contributions are likely to be more varied ranging from contributions such as sector-wide targets covering, for example,  the power industry or forests to energy intensity targets

In terms of the draft text for the 2015 Agreement— which will be further refined in Geneva in February and then circulated in May to governments for the final negotiations up to Paris— we are looking at Lima to provide text that is balanced, well-structured and coherent. It needs to be clear about its direction and not over-burdened with multiple, competing proposals or ideas.

What can be other key outcomes from Lima that can lay the foundation for the 2015 Paris Agreement?

Christiana Figueres: The other key outcomes from Lima that can lay the foundation for Paris include: The Lima Action Agenda to 2020. While Paris is often characterized as action post-2020, there really needs to be an elevation of ambition up to 2020 given the science and the reality that the longer the world delays the more costly the action will be and the more expensive the risks of impacts. So raising ambition not only among governments but also cities, business, investors and citizens needs to happen now. We are already seeing it across the globe as evidenced by the many inspiring initiatives that flowed from the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September. We need to build on these ambitions and partnerships in Lima.

What about climate finance?

Christiana Figueres: Understanding how much climate finance is actually flowing is key to unlocking, focusing and leveraging more.  Indeed at Lima, the Standing Committee on Finance to the Conference of the Parties will release a report assessing these multi-billion dollar flows coming from governments via funds like the GCF. Ditto for the Global Environment Facility, the Multilateral Development Banks; special funds under the UNFCCC, Overseas Development Assistance and private sources. The conclusion is that a lot more climate financing is happening than perhaps many are aware of but more is needed and the flows need to be better understood, focused, better coordinated, reported upon and leveraged.

What are the other issues that would get traction?

Christiana Figueres:  The Lima conference will also focus on areas that need more support ranging from adaptation and areas like sustainable transport, which has multiple environmental, social and economic benefits. A good outcome on adaptation will also be important from Lima including on how to achieve political parity with mitigation, and how to achieve a prompt start for adaptation funding.   Many countries have developed National Adaptation Plans and again an agreement on how they are supported would be very positive as well as fully operationalizing the Loss and Damage Executive Committee by agreeing to a two-year work plan and electing members

In respect to forests under the Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), countries need to start moving to more implementation and results on the ground through the scaling-up of finance and support.

Finally there is an urgency to implement various outstanding issues from previous Conferences of the Parties.

Let me mention one. In Doha two years ago nations agreed to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol until 2020 when the Paris Agreement comes into effect. To date only 20 countries have done this and it needs 144 to become operational. In Lima parties need to adopt clear ground accounting rules so that many more nations can ratify so that the 144 mark can be met.

Apart from financing, technology transfer continues to be another contentious issue for developing countries. Do you expect any breakthrough on this issue?

Christiana Figueres: With the capitalization of the Green Climate Fund underway now, I would hope there is more confidence among developing countries on finance and as mentioned, the issue of finance  — and quite what is out there and how effectively it is being deployed —is coming to the fore in Lima.

The emergence of new carbon markets; the arrival of new instruments such as a Green Bond and Climate Bond market allied to commitments by banks, insurers and other investors to green investment flows indicates that finance in support of climate action is moving up the agenda.

Moving forward in areas like the Climate Technology Centre and Networks is also underway so I hope developing countries will see progress upon which the world can build in the next 12 months.

What's your understanding of India's position on climate change negotiations and what more would you like to see India do?

Christiana Figueres: India’s new government is taking an increasingly active role and I have been impressed by the various new announcements emerging from India covering issues such as attracting investment for low carbon developments, the scaling up of renewables and phasing down diesel generation.

Far from being a burden to India, action on climate change can be a huge opportunity for India to attract the financial resources and the technology it needs to expand and modernize its power sector, and lift many citizens out of poverty.  The key is for India to identify where these opportunities are and maximize them.   

Internally in India, central Indian states like Madhya Pradesh seems to be more proactive than say flash flood-hit Himalayan state Uttarakhand or cyclone-hit coastal state Andhra Pradesh. Since such a pattern may be playing out in many countries, do you think there is a need to bring the issue into the discourse so that the global focus is not only on countries getting their national numbers right but also their local acts?

Christiana Figueres: I could not agree more. Cities, local authorities, regions and states have a huge opportunity to contribute to assisting citizens to adapt to climatic impacts as well as put in place low carbon pathways that can deliver healthier, more vibrant and socially inclusive communities.

Indeed we are seeing many 'sub-national' entities acting in India and elsewhere because perhaps they see with greater clarity the challenges and the environmental and social opportunities from transforming their economies.

ICLEI, the local authorities sustainability organization, and C40 have, for example, over 40 Indian municipalities who are members including Madras, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune many of whom are pursuing climate policies and actions with real determination that can not only assist their communities but the country and the world in catalyzing ever greater ambition.

Finally, how hopeful are you about Paris Agreement in 2015 that meets its set goals?

Christiana Figueres: I think it is important to recognize that the Paris Agreement in 2015 is not going to solve climate change at a pen stroke—but it needs to be a turning point that puts in place the policies and pathways to see emissions globally peak in 10 or so years; triggers a deep de-carbonization of the global economy and assists the world to reach climate neutrality in the second half of the century.  This is the only pathway toward a development that is truly sustainable for all.

- OneWorld Foundation India

Themes: Environment, Energy and Renewable Energy