UMich Delegates to COP21 talk climate with former Costa Rica President in Paris

picture of figueres during interview
Interview with José María Figueres, COP21, Paris, France

Former Costa Rican president José María Figueres is a man who wears many hats. Apart from being the former president of Costa Rica, he is a consummate businessman, a conservationist and a leading advocate for renewable energy. During his presidency, he was noted for stressing on environmental protection and making sustainable development the bedrock of his economic policies. Last December, the University of Michigan’s official delegation to the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met Mr. Figueres for an interview  in Paris. During week 1 of the conference, the delegates included Professor Paul Edwards at the School of Information, Professor Avik Basu at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), joined by Matthew Irish and Elizabeth Ultee from Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, and Brian La Shier and I from SNRE. With an unassuming and affable personality, he engaged with everyone on myriad issues at a busy café. Enjoying the warm winter sun, he spoke at length about his own background, his political career, his concern for the ocean and climate politics.   

We met Mr. Figueres on a pleasant winter morning, with the sun shining after a few days of dreary grey clouds dominating the skies of Paris. Talking to the students and faculty delegates over several cups of steaming coffee and early morning din at the café, he elaborated on his diverse professional portfolio. “I have spent about 10 years of my life in business, 12 years in public policy and then about 14 years in international work. After that I am now back in Costa Rica, halfway between international work still, because I continue to serve as the chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room and the co-chair of the Global Ocean Alliance”, he said. But his many international commitments have not stopped him from focusing on his country’s political future. “The other part of my life in Costa Rica is involved in the political party to which I belong, in a, shall we say, turnaround operation. That’s because it is a complete overhaul and restructuring of the political party to bring it up to present day and future thinking”, he continued.  

Displaying his pragmatism as well as faith in institutions, he believes that we should work towards doing the best we can in today’s current political system. “I believe very strongly that until we have something better than political parties to participate in democracy, we will be well served if we can do everything we can to improve the quality of political parties, not only in terms of machinery but also their thinking.” During the conversation, Mr. Figueres displayed his acumen not only as a politician and businessman, but also as a person with an in-depth knowledge of both global economic processes, as well as history. Giving us a background about what precipitated the climate crisis we are all grappling with, he delineated its link to the present model of economic growth. Mr. Figueres said, “The world enjoyed about 10 or 15 years of tremendous economic growth and a feeling of wellbeing until about 2007. And during that time of growth, we saw expected parts of the world continue to grow, like US and Europe along with Asia, the champion of growth. But we also saw certain parts of the world grow, that we had not expected to grow, also do well. Africa grew, 5-6% on an average per year. Latin America grew at 6-7% on average over a decade.” Elaborating on how economic growth propelled prosperity and consumption, he said, “That growth enabled the world to do things we had never been able to do before.  During this period, we pulled millions of people out of poverty in every continent, more than we had ever been able to do so. We were also able to move in a very short time about five hundred million people into a new global middle class. Almost 300 million of those people in China, almost 200 million of those people in India. But also many dozens of millions in Latin America and Africa. 500 million people moving into the middle class in such a short period of time with new aspirations, new possibilities of purchasing power.”

“We set up a giant factory over Asia, fuelled by consumption in Europe and the US, and everybody seemed to be doing well for a while. Until we went into the tailspin in 2008, which spiralled in the developed world, and spread to the developing world. And we thought we would spend our way out of the crisis to stimulate the economy, but we were left with fiscal deficits and much more negatively, a tremendous amount of unemployment that we still have not been able to solve in an adequate way (except the US).” This is of course the crux of the problem in solving the climate crisis today, whether to protect the environment or continue to fuel economic growth (mostly using fossil fuels) to solve the human crisis of global poverty and unemployment. Many developing countries have stressed that any efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions will not be at the cost of their economic growth, which is badly needed to pull out the over 1.5 billion people who still live below the poverty line. Mr. Figueres calls some of this unemployment ‘structural’ and says the loss of the knowledge and contribution of millions of qualified unemployed youth, is a great loss to the world.

Mr. Figueres echoes the views of many observers who believe that we are witnessing a period of transition. He believes we are moving from “200 years of industrial revolution and model of development that was set in stone, and transitioning out into something that is still not something very clear, but what I call a low carbon economy. It may be a lot of other things, but at least it is those two things.” Explaining his take on the major challenges that modern humanity faces today, I was heartened to hear him carefully balance the twin ecological pressures of population (stemming from the growing Global South) and consumption (disproportionately higher in the Global North). Mr. Figueres believes that we have finally come to a situation where we understand the effects of a growing population and our aspirations of well being we are all entitled to, against planetary limits and an earth that is not growing any larger. Quoting Gandhi, he said that considering how Britain industrialized and prospered on the back of colonialism with resources from half the world, if India were to move on to the same kind of lifestyle, the country alone would need 3-4 planets to fuel that growth.

Although no part in the South has seen such a fantastic economic growth or increase in consumption, but some parts have witnessed significant growth. And just as during the industrial revolution, much of this growth has been fuelled by burning fossil fuels. On the issue of this growing demand for energy, Mr. Figueres had a pithy but apt description for it: voracious. And in that demand, he believes we are wasting a lot of it. Eliciting knowing nods from all of us, he noted how overheated the Parisian café was. Talking about this energy demand, he noted that it is the meeting of this demand with the supply of fossil fuels, that has precipitated this environmental disaster upon us. “Climate change is not a ghost of the future, but a disaster that is already upon us”, he warned.

He has been particularly concerned with the destruction being wreaked upon our oceans. Growing carbon contents in the ocean has caused acidification, while rising temperatures have started bleaching the coral reefs, one of the most ecologically important habitats on earth. Large areas in the gulf of Mexico are now dead zones due to increasing nitrogen and phosphorus as animal farming/ agricultural runoff. But he was cognizant of not only these pressing ecological challenges, but also the issue of poverty that has a tenacious hold on the South. Perhaps because of his own placement as a Costa Rican, he appreciated the concerns of the South that poverty and inequity need to be solved not only because of moral and ethical imperatives, but also for the peace, security and economic benefit of the entire world. Mr. Figueres said that it is most important that the challenge of climate change be balanced with the critical need for economic growth. The former Costa Rican President grimly noted that instead of our greenhouse gas emissions coming down, “we are on a trajectory to be over 550 ppm of GHGs in the atmosphere by 2050, which is only a few years away. The challenge is to decouple our aspirations for development from carbon emissions; a new economy based on low carbon emissions, which will need a new definition for everything. The way we live, transport ourselves, work, everything.”

It is in this respect that Mr. Figueres sees COP21 a turning point. He believes that Paris could be a monumental moment in history, where global leaders finally seized that opportunity to correct our current path, spiralling down to environmental doom! And this window of opportunity according to him is the next 15-20 years. According to Mr. Figueres, this monumental transition and shift to a low carbon economy will need a multipronged and concerted effort by policy makers. He believes one of the ways in which this process can be accelerated is through interventions like a carbon tax. However, he noted with jest that this would be far from an easy process in the US, given how charged both the words ‘carbon’ and ‘tax’ are. He rightly noted that although such a measure would be highly divisive, a policy decision like this needs to be made to send the right signals to the market and induce behavioral changes in people: “People will become more efficient in carbon generation”. However, he notes that another uphill task is raising funds to make huge investments in the renewable energy sector. This would, of course, be even more challenging given the enormous energy demand that will continues to grow in developing countries. In order for the world to remain within the 2°C limit, the majority of that energy demand should be met from renewable sources, which would need climate financing and technology transfer at a scale that is presently absent.

Professor Paul Edwards pointed out that removal of subsidies might also be a good step towards phasing out fossil fuels from our economy. Mr. Figueres strongly nodded in agreement as he exclaimed, “$500 billion, that’s the amount of subsidy being given to fossil fuel companies today! The Group of 77 and China is saying, you (developed countries) polluted – now put up $100 billion, which no one is paying, while $500 billion goes in this”. Therefore, Mr. Figueres recommends 4 main structural changes to accelerate this movement of transition to a low carbon economy: (a) end subsidies, (b) impose a carbon tax, (c) enact IMF special drawing rights and (d) use a network of development banks to put money out there and reach out to people at the micro-level. He calls these 4 issues as both the opportunities and challenges at COP21. It is these change that COP21 seeks to see through. Mr. Figueres thinks that the Paris agreement will now mark a new beginning of something different towards the future. Although the Paris Agreement agreed upon by most countries of the world is a step in the right direction, only time will tell if Figueres’ hope of a swift transition of the world to a low carbon economy will take place fast enough to avoid global catastrophe.

The conference venue at Le Bourget in Paris was thick with these tensions, and negotiations got fairly tense at times, with many of us witnessing sharp exchanges between country delegates at plenary sessions. Although an agreement was finally agreed upon, it appears more like an agreement to agree, with most critical issues like financing still remaining open on the table. When asked what were the key differences at COP21 that still are contentious for the developed and developing countries, Mr. Figueres noted it is the issue of ‘historic responsibility’ of developed countries to clean our air and oceans. “At the macro level, the G77 and China, the developing world, comes to the table saying ‘For years you, the developed world, polluted as part of your reaching development; it’s now our turn to develop. So we should now have a chance to do the same, as our aspirations are as rightful as yours. If we need money to reconvert, it is you, the polluters, who need to put money on the table.’ This has been the talk for years”.

Mr. Figueres does, however, believe that this ensuing crisis also presents the Global South with a tremendous opportunity, that of skipping the pollution of fossil fuels, and jumping to renewable energy. He had an interesting parallel tale: Africa did not need landline connections to be laid across the continent; it leapfrogged to cell phones. These technologies are of course very expensive, and with the mechanism for climate finance and technology transfer still unclear, this jumpstart hinges on the developed countries putting money where their mouth is. But it is correct that the energy sector is undergoing a transformation across the world, slower than what one would hope for, the wheels of change are moving. This is certainly true for Mr. Figueres’ home country. In 2015, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute announcing that the country has achieved 99% renewable energy generation. Larger economies like China have also started transitioning towards renewable energy due to poor air quality caused by coal plants assailing urban Chinese citizens.

As we ended our conversation with Mr. Figueres, all of us left the café with a certain sense of hope that the Paris outcome can bring about positive changes. I will certainly agree that it has sent a clear signal to the fossil fuel industry that its days are numbered. Leaving my personal concerns aside, I am fervently hoping that as COP 22 takes place in Marrakech later this year, some of the fog of indecision and uncertainty will begin to dissipate and a firm and equitable action plan will be laid out that concretely tries to combat climate change with the urgency that it needs. Mr. Figueres’ 4 point action plan seems to be the perfect immediate solution to begin earnest climate action.


By Mayank Vikas, Graduate Student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment with inputs from Matt Irish. Video credits: graphics and editing by Matt Irish, Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. Both Vikas and Irish were part of the University of Michigan official delegation to COP 21, held in Paris from November 30 to December 11, 2015.

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