It takes a world, not a village, to fix the problem we created, but the technology (mostly) already exists, says the architect of the Paris Agreement and co-winner of this year’s Dan David Prize
Ruth Schuster | Apr. 22, 2019

Yes, we can fix the planet, insists Christiana Figueres, the doyenne of climate change and one of this year’s Dan David laureates for her work forging a global alliance to stabilize the climate.

It is a startling thing to hear. These days, the range of reactions to climate change seems to span from terror to Trumpian denial; optimism isn’t in that range. Yet she has it. “Perhaps not alone, perhaps not overnight, but humanity has everything it takes to address climate change,” Figueres tells Haaretz.

Perhaps the Costa Rican diplomat is upbeat because she herself is behind the worldwide initiative to save us from ourselves. As executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010, Figueres was the architect of the “Paris Agreement” adopted by 195 nations in 2015 to phase out fossil fuels and adopt environmentally sustainable policies.

“If not for her being able to convince world leaders to come together … it couldn’t have happened,” explains Prof. Colin Price, a member of the Dan David committee that awarded her the $1 million prize. This wasn’t the time to reward the scientists: they did their bit. Or the engineers: most of the technologies exist. This is the time for the political ounce of prevention, Price explains: Investing now will save tenfold in the future. Handling massive sea level rise, vanished ice caps, droughts and tremendous natural hazards will cost much, much more than investing today in preventative measures.

The science is in. There is no hope of completely reversing climate change at this point, certainly not within our lifetimes. There is hope of capping the increase in average global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — and Figueres is confident it’s still doable if the people thronging the planet pull together, and fast.

What hope is there that people will change their carbon-laden ways? That requires political leadership. What chance is there that politicians will forgo short-term economic development for ecological wisdom? That requires Christiana Figueres, it seems.

“We have what it takes,” she says. “We have to put three things together with clear intentionality and urgency in order to address climate change: trees, electricity technology and transport.”

For billions of years, the photosynthesis of trees has been capturing carbon dioxide and storing carbon in the biomass and the soil. We need more of that. Technology refers to solar and wind electricity generation. “Fossil fuel energy has had its day. There is no more growth there,” she says. “We know that solar and wind energy will continue to improve and decrease in price.” Also, society is becoming more energy efficient in everything from energy generation and distribution to construction materials and household appliances, she adds.

As for transport, electric is coming of age, she says, noting how all major car manufacturers are now releasing electric models, some hybrid and some completely electric.

“What Christiana is doing is the political side: Getting countries, not just academics, to understand it’s a win-win situation,” Price says. “If we work together now, and cut back now — in the end everyone is going to benefit from it, saving money in the long-term.”

Climate change as religion

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report last year predicting what could happen if global warming passes 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report warned that we apparently have just 12 years to drastically change our ways to avoid the worst.

Figueres snorts when asked if she believes the world can utterly change its ways in that time.

A professional diplomat, she is scornful of climate deniers. The popular yearning to believe in intangibles like prayer, rather than tangibles like the hottest summer in recorded history, leaves her sputtering. Unmoved by U.S. President Donald Trump and his vocal denials, she seems equally unflustered by climate Cassandras like the scientists predicting that tipping point in 2030. The point is, belief is for the birds.

“‘Belief’ in climate change? People’s opinions, mine or anyone else’s, are totally irrelevant,” she says. “This is science. It is not a myth or an opinion.” What the science says, apparently, is that humankind has to stop distracting itself and to crack down. Denial is a luxury we can no longer afford.

In any case, she feels that the deniers are now on the loony fringes. “When we discovered that the Earth was round, not flat, there were still deniers who hung on to false information,” she says.

But people in denial can still vote. Asked if the deniers aren’t cause for worry, Figueres indicates that if anybody should worry, it isn’t us. “I don’t engage with them,” she says. “Even if some people deny climate, it doesn’t mean climate change isn’t upon them, upon their communities, upon their families and upon their countries. Even if they don’t believe in gravity, it’s still acting on them.”

In other words: Deniers are not a majority, but that doesn’t mean the majority votes for the right people. “Maybe 10 percent of the global population doesn’t get it at all yet,” Figueres sums up. “But the vast majority knows that we are under dangerous climate patterns and that we need to address it.”

Maybe some do. Earlier this month, Science Advances ran an opinion piece by Shahid Naeem of Columbia University, noting that since civilization began to rise nearly 12,000 years ago, every gauge of planetary health has shifted to the red. No chirping optimist he, Naeem says that a Gallup survey of Americans found their paramount concern was dissatisfaction with leadership. That was followed by immigration reform. Even “the decline of family values” trumped the environment, which only made eighth place. Americans for one seem reluctant to realize that as the key part of the climate change problem, people have to be the ones who solve it — and fast.

Humanity sacrifice

The news about climate change is inconsistent, but all of it is terrifying. Glaciers are collapsing, ocean currents are changing, ice sheets are melting, temperature patterns are breaking records, and we know it. Fiercer storms are sweeping in and staying for the long-haul. And the less said about polar bears, the less heartbreaking it will be.

Also terrifying is the assumption that the West will have to sacrifice its luxuries and the East will have to sacrifice its ambition of achieving Western standards. One reason India is expected to become the world’s No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases is burning garbage; another is its rapid industrialization in order to lift more of its 1.4 billion people out of poverty. China may be better about trash disposal, but its social mobility also comes at an environmental cost.

But from her vantage point at the top of global politics, Figueres has unique perspectives. First of all, the West is in the best position to move quickly beyond fossil fuels, switching to 100 percent power generation through renewable energy. Asia can achieve and sustain economic growth without burning more and more fossil fuels: That’s a fallacy dating from the last century, she says.

“The developing markets don’t have to be condemned to the same growth pattern that was followed by the global north. They can pursue their own economic growth. They have to bring populations out of poverty, but with the advent of clean technologies they can pursue economic growth without carbon and, critically, can move to very efficient transport. Some are doing that, but not enough,” she adds.

Actually, Figueres and some experts part ways on the state of the art. She argues that most, if not all, of the technologies we need are on the market and are decreasing in cost. Science has been working on harvesting sunlight for over a century, and wind and water technologies are improving.

But, say experts, none of these renewable energies are near reaching the kind of critical mass and affordability that could power, say, not just a homestead, small business or village, but New York.

Figueres laughs. “Apparently they don’t know that [New York Governor] Andrew Cuomo has launched his plan to double solar generation by 2025 and quadruple offshore wind by 2035, on the path to 100 percent carbon-free electricity for the entire city of New York by 2040.

Seeing the light

Sunny countries like Israel and Spain have a huge potential to replace fossil fuels with solar technology. Spain has launched its plan to be 100 percent renewable by 2050 and is already on its way, says Figueres.

Israel has a goal of reaching 10 percent solar-powered electricity by 2020. Modernizing its electricity infrastructure, Israel could go much further in producing its own electricity.

One snag is that the efficiency of solar power generation remains low — meaning the amount of electricity that can be achieved from a given area hit by sunlight.

Solar power actually dates back more than a century: Selenium-based cells with efficiency of less than 1 percent. That is terrible. The first silicon cell technology was invented by Bell Labs in the 1950s and boasted efficiency of about 2.3 percent, which is a marked improvement but still not useful on vast scales.

Today, lab scientists have achieved efficiency greater than 44 percent, but only by using materials of prohibitive cost — and this is not a solution for mass production. What’s on sale for households is typically technology with around 11 to 20 percent efficiency, rising to 23 percent for the most efficient panels.

The biggest snag to scaling up solar technology is that we still haven’t developed cheap and efficient storage technology for power generated during peak sunlight for darker times, explains Prof. Avi Niv from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. The same applies to wind technology.

“It is a material failure in the claim that solar and wind are ready to be scaled up,” he says. “We can have strong wind and generate a huge amount of power. But when the wind drops, what then?”

Storage of fossil fuels is trivial: oil is stored in tanks; coal in piles. They get used ad hoc as needed, Niv points out. But if the source is the sun or the wind, battery technology is far from supplying a solution, so we still can’t store the electricity. Once we make it, we have to use it or lose it.

“Forget New York, even Be’er Sheva,” Niv says. “This storage technology does not exist. We don’t know how to produce and recycle vast amounts of batteries.”

While silicon is common as dirt, battery technology today involves using heavy metals, which are not common. It’s one thing to have a smidgen of a rare metal in our smartphones, but there just isn’t enough to store power for the world, Niv says.

While the big problem is storage, area is a problem too, he adds. “We would need to cover at least some of the desert in panels, and so on, throwing shade on the beetles. Ecologists would be appalled.”

Forget the West

Even so, Figueres’ optimism is a refreshing change from the clamor. We can hope that the mass storage problem will be solved too.

“In the future, we will still need technology to accelerate the absorption of carbon dioxide,” Figueres says. There are pilot carbon capture projects, but they’re neither industrial scale nor affordable, she qualifies.

And finally, she drives home that economic development does not have to mean rising fossil fuel use. The developing markets do not have to follow disastrous Western precedents. “They can pursue their own economic growth — and have to, to bring populations out of poverty — but with the advent of clean technologies, they can pursue economic growth without carbon emissions,” Figueres says.

Indeed, it isn’t Trump’s America or even Angela Merkel’s Germany that are showing the way: Figueres’ homeland of Costa Rica has vowed to totally decarbonize by 2050. “I think that is realistic,” she says. “I would even go as far as thinking that Costa Rica can decarbonize before that. The date they chose is simply consistent with the Paris Agreement. What most countries find is that once they go down the path of decarbonization, the process self-accelerates to paces they could never have thought before.”

India is also working on decarbonizing and is investing in solar energy, she says: If anything, it is in overcompliance with solar conversion. “They had committed to achieving 40 percent of their electricity generation by solar by 2030 … and now aspire to achieve 60 percent of renewable energy not by 2030 but by 2027. That is the exponential curve of change,” notes Figueres.

Meanwhile, India has minimal central garbage collection and the entire nation exists in a pall caused by burning. Life expectancy in New Delhi has been cut by six years because of the smog, she says.

But the science is in, and it has also established that, as soon as next year, the world could have positioned itself to begin to decrease emissions, not just decrease the pace of growth, she says.

“By 2030, we have to cut our current emissions by 50 percent — that is the target,” she says. “By 2040 we have to cut emissions by another 50 percent, and by 2050, again. By that point, the only prevailing greenhouse gas emissions will be ones that the planet will be able to naturally absorb. That is the curve established by science.”

An irrelevant D.C. denier

Even Donald Trump and his denialism can’t change that. “His opinion on climate change is irrelevant to the science of climate change, just as Donald Trump’s opinion about gravity is irrelevant,” Figueres says. She adds there is “no doubt that if we had serious, responsible leadership in the White House, we would be further along in addressing climate change. But even the U.S.’ threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement cannot stop the global effort to decarbonize. It isn’t even stopping decarbonization in the United States, where 60 percent of the economy is pursuing decarbonization because they understand it is beneficial for them.”

Meanwhile, what can we the people do? Every day brings a new story about melting glaciers, starving animals, “insectageddon” and spreading disease. Feeling overwhelmed by that deluge of information? Don’t read the news. Or at least: “Don’t be paralyzed by the news,” says Figueres. “Do your part.”

Which is:

* Stop eating red meat. You don’t have to go immediately from eating it five days a week to zero, but consider reducing consumption to one day a week, she says. “It would be good for the planet and for your own personal health,” Figueres adds.

* Insulate your homes and offices. “You don’t need to warm the neighborhood in winter or cool it in summer,” she points out.

* Embrace public transportation — or if you must have a private car, go electric. “Some continue to use huge SUVs to transport one person. That is completely irresponsible,” she says.

* Invest responsibly, in green stuff. Don’t invest in fossil fuels.

* Vote smart, for people who realize that this is a very different world with very different priorities, and that action is the order of the day. Now. Not tomorrow. Now.

The Dan David Prize awards three prizes of one million dollars each to figures and organizations whose efforts have made outstanding humanistic, scientific and technological contributions and represent remarkable achievement in selected fields within the three dimensions of time – Past, Present and Future. This year’s fields are Macro History, Defending Democracy, and Combatting Climate Change, the organization stated. The prize is named after the late Dan David, a businessman and philanthropist.