As Patricia Espinosa prepares to step down as UN climate chief, she has a warning for the world: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must not distract leaders from the escalating climate crisis.
Even as the war is causing “so much suffering,” global warming remains the “most rapidly growing threat to human species on the planet,” Espinosa told Reuters.
Espinosa said she planned to step down as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when her second, three-year term ends in July.
The UNFCCC is the 196-country treaty that convenes global negotiations on tackling climate change.
War could speed up clean energy transition
“This is an agenda that cannot be postponed,” she said, noting that the energy security concerns brought on by the war — Russia is a major global supplier of fossil fuels — could hasten countries toward clean energy.
The European Union will publish plans on Tuesday to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, for security reasons. Germany — Europe’s biggest economy — has also brought forward its shift to renewable power. Europe gets 40 per cent of its gas from Russia.
“It’s a very important change in the way the issue of energy transition is being addressed,” Espinosa said.
Coal use could increase
Countries’ moves to escape dependency on Russian energy could prompt more domestic coal use, however. Since the invasion, Germany has also announced plans to build terminals to receive gas from other countries.
But climate analysts echoed Espinosa’s hope that the geopolitical crisis will mark a pivot for global climate action.
There’s no evidence so far that “climate will be squeezed out of the political or fiscal agenda of governments,” said Alex Scott, climate diplomacy leader at think-tank E3G. Governments can “handle responses to both of these crises.”
What’s happened since Patricia Espinosa took office
When Espinosa took on the job in 2016, global climate action was at a high point. Months before, UN climate negotiations had yielded the Paris Agreement, committing countries to limit warming to 2 C above pre-industrial temperatures, and aim for 1.5 C.
In the years since, millions of people around the world have rallied for climate action. Countries including the two biggest polluters — China and the United States — have ramped up their emissions-cutting targets. More than 80 per cent of new electricity capacity added in 2020 was renewable.
Yet global CO2 emissions continue to climb. Promised funding from rich countries to help poorer nations fight climate change has not arrived. And the 1.1 C of warming already seen has worsened weather extremes — from deadly heat waves and downpours to catastrophic wildfires. A UN climate science report last week warned of escalating destruction if countries fail to slash emissions and prepare for a hotter planet.
“We have moved in the right direction,” Espinosa said. “But at the same time … of course, I wish we would have achieved more.”
The UN climate summit, COP26, in November, clinched an agreement that countries will upgrade their emissions-cutting pledges this year, since current plans would fail to limit warming to 1.5 C.
Espinosa’s plan for her final months in office
Espinosa said she will focus her final months on urging more ambitious pledges ahead of the next UN climate summit, COP27, in Egypt in November.
She will also push forward contentious talks on how to deal with the “loss and damage” caused by climate-related disasters in poorer countries. Vulnerable countries’ demands for funding for disaster compensation have so far been resisted by wealthy nations in the UN talks.
Espinosa said she did not have specific plans for after she steps down, but hoped to continue contributing to environmental sustainability. The United Nations has yet to begin the process of appointing her successor.
The biggest challenge facing her successor at the UNFCCC, she said, is speed — a test for a process that can take years to negotiate a single agreement among its nearly 200 countries.
“What is very important is to get a sense of urgency in this process,” Espinosa said. “We don’t have time for gradual progress anymore.”