U.N. climate chief praises Europe for blazing path to lower emissions

The United Nations' climate chief yesterday praised Europe's pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels over the coming decade, saying it sets a high bar for other nations working to develop long-term targets toward a new global treaty.

In an interview with ClimateWire from Davos, Switzerland, where she is making the case for global warming action at the World Economic Forum, Christiana Figueres said she expects "an important subset of countries" to join the European Union in revealing new emissions targets when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convenes a high-level climate change summit in September.

The United States likely won't be among them, she noted, both because the post-2020 targets are not officially due until the following year and because of the summit's timing on the American political calendar: just two months before the midterm elections. But, Figueres said, she expects President Obama to double down on his pledges to tackle rising carbon pollution.

"There is no doubt that President Obama will have to reiterate his commitment to global climate action," she said. "We would expect a political reiteration of the U.S. government."

U.N. officials have described the September summit, which will take place on the first day of the 68th General Assembly session in New York, as a launching pad toward December 2015. That's the deadline governments have set themselves for signing a new global climate change agreement that will come into force in 2020.


Unlike the current Kyoto Protocol, this deal is expected to call for carbon cuts from all nations, including China and India. Meeting in Warsaw, Poland, last year, negotiators agreed to begin the domestic analysis needed to come up with new numbers and put those on the table by the first quarter of 2015. Yet a number of issues remain unresolved -- chief among them how developed and developing countries plan to divvy up the world's carbon space in a way each considers fair.

"The summit will begin to populate with data and political commitments how we're going to get that process started," Figueres said, adding the gathering will "give some clarity about what is possible over the next few years."

The European Commission's proposed 2030 target is one of the world's most ambitious, essentially doubling its 2020 target of cutting emissions 20 percent. It also calls for renewable power to make up 27 percent of Europe's energy by 2030, up from the current goal of 20 percent by the end of this decade.

Start of new dialogues

Yet the blueprint also dials back some requirements. While E.U. member countries will collectively be responsible for hitting the 27 percent goal, the plan does away with specific national targets currently in force.

Figueres yesterday dismissed that concern, saying the European framework still faces debate from the 28 member states and must pass the European Parliament before it becomes law.

"On the whole, it's very good news," she said. "It is important that Europe has come out early because it encourages others to do the same."

She also waded into the debate over global coal financing and Republican attempts in Congress to roll back some of the Obama administration's efforts to curb U.S. support for coal development overseas. Riders in an omnibus spending bill awaiting the president's signature would weaken administration rules limiting support for coal projects in middle-income countries unless equipped with carbon capture and storage technologies.

"The United States took the lead in taking that position," Figueres said, noting that the World Bank and other multilateral development banks have since followed suit in setting new rules of the road for coal development.

"They understand unless we address climate in a timely fashion, everything we have gained in terms of development ... will simply be wiped out," she said, adding that she does not believe efforts to stop those rules will ultimately succeed.

"I'm not here to say we will be in a world without coal," Figueres said. "We will have coal, but it has to be abated coal, and in the future it won't be as huge a part of the energy mix. We are moving from a world of predominantly unabated coal to fully abated coal."