US election marks return to 'climate responsibility,' says Paris Agreement architect

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, at an event in Toronto. Photo by: Sam Barnes / Collision via Sportsfile / CC BY

LONDON — The election of Joe Biden as president of the United States is “very good news” for the fight against climate change, according to Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations official who led the negotiations for the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.

President Donald Trump decided to pull the U.S. out of the agreement in 2017 but Figueres, who served as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-2016, said she expected Biden to “roll back all the roll backs that were done by the Trump administration.”

In an interview for the Devex World conference, Figueres downplayed the impact of the U.S. withdrawal on climate action. “The fact is that the United States, even despite the White House over the past four years, has continued to decarbonize and in fact could even come very, very close to the decarbonization targets that they set in 2015 in Paris,” she said.

Nonetheless, the country’s plan to rejoin the agreement is “good news” for both the U.S., which will accelerate the decarbonization of its economy, and for international action. “Knowing that the U.S. government will return to climate responsibility, there will be other governments that will be enticed to collaborate,” she said.

She praised President-elect Biden’s selection of John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate, describing him as “one of the most knowledgeable people in the United States on climate change,” both from a domestic and international perspective. That's important because there’s a lot of work to do on both fronts, including repairing damaged international relations, she said.

Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat, recalled Kerry signing the Paris Agreement on behalf of the U.S. with his granddaughter on his knee, in what became an iconic image.

John Kerry, former U.S. secretary of state, holds his granddaughter and signs the Paris Agreement at the United Nations headquarters in 2016. Photo by: Amanda Voisard / UN Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

“This, for him, is not just an intellectual exercise … This is his passion … He understands that this is all about future generations and the most vulnerable populations,” she said.

But Figueres highlighted that the election result is not just about climate. “The election of President-elect Biden is ... good news for a host of different issues that are frankly related,” such as inequality, diversity and gender equality, she said.

“All of these issues have really suffered hugely under the Trump administration … All of these issues will have to be built back and so it’s not just about climate — it’s about respect, it's about decency, it's about moving away from fear and intimidation into collaboration and solidarity. That will take time … and will require a huge amount of effort inside the United States, and it will require understanding on the part of other nations.”

About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she worked as a writer, researcher, and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph, and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.