By Elizabeth Njambi

2020 ends. 2021 begins. How can we make sure this will be a defining year in the fight against climate breakdown? What has COVID taught us? And is it possible to be optimistic?

We talk to Christiana Figueres – the global climate leader who led the 2015 Paris accord talks and author of “The Future We Choose” – about all of this. And we also get reflections from Oxfam’s Nafkote Dabi about what success really looks like in the wake of the rise of climate movements across the globe. All in under thirty minutes. An illuminating episode to finish 2020 – with hope and inspiration for what we must do in 2021.

This is episode 5 of the EQUALS podcast Season 3 – and if you’re joining us for the first time, tune in to our earlier interviews – from talking with best-selling author Anand Giridharadas on whether we need billionaires, to thinker Ece Temelkuran on beating fascism, Darrick Hamilton on racism in the economy, and the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva on what comes after the pandemic.

Do listen, subscribe and share with friends and family! Please leave us reviews on your preferred podcast platform (such as Apple Podcasts) – it helps us grow our audience. Follow us on Twitter @EQUALSHope and leave us your feedback here. 

The following is a truncated “transcript”, but you can listen to the full episode below or on your preferred podcast platform!

Patriotism at its best.

Christiana has to be one of our most patriotic guests! She starts by sharing a proud moment in history for Costa Ricans saying, “…I have to share. Yesterday, we celebrated the anniversary of the abolition of our army (which happened way back in 1948) … Most countries celebrate the Army presence … but we use that national budget to protect nature and to educate our people and that is the secret to Costa Rica being very high up on the happiness index and on nature protection and on many other issues that are near and dear to our hearts.”

Staying Optimistic

It’s no doubt that Christiana Figueres is an optimist. Nabil is keen to know how she stay so optimistic in this scary world we’re living in.

In true Costa Rican fashion, she happily answers, “… Honestly these days it is a daily choice, and it has to be a very courageous choice. It’s a choice to acknowledge and to strengthen every day the realization that we do have what it takes to answer both the national as well as the internationally global threats that are in front of us because if we just give up, … then we have done absolutely nothing to improve the lives of our children and those that come after us. … All of us, every single one of us, has the responsibility to do everything that we have to improve life conditions on this planet.”

Looking into the Future

Drawing from Christiana’s book and the 2050 scenarios she depicts, Nabil asks her to draw those pictures for our listeners.

Using her words as a brush and EQUALS as the canvas, she paints away, “… If we continue on current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, we will blow through the carbon budget and by 2050, we could well be living in a world in which the air is unbreathable, because of pollution that is harming our hearts are lungs in our brains, but also because of the heat that is going to make it practically impossible to run, play or work outside. … Countries that already have food insecurity … would have such drought and such heat that a lot of that area will be rendered uninhabitable! Those people would have to be migrating forcibly … to save their lives and the lives of their children. That then cascades on to huge confrontations at borders, political strife and obviously food conflicts, water conflicts. And health?! Can you imagine? … COVID is nothing compared to these zoonotic diseases that we may have with runaway climate change. And here we are … day-dreaming our way into that kind of a world! … This is not a world that any of us can afford … We have to give absolutely everything that we have to avoid that.”

Is it all looking grim and dark?

Christiana continues, flipping the switch to what could happen if we made all the right choices moving forward. She paints, “… but if we are able to cut our missions by 1/2 with respect to current emissions over the next decade, then not only do we avoid this dystopian world, that we cannot afford to go into, but we actually open the door to a world that is so much better than the world that we live in now! … We could have clean cities that do not have air pollution. We could have transport that is efficient. We could be feeding every single person on this planet healthy good food. We could have everyone having access to water; portable and drinkable water. We could have every single family have access to electricity. I mean honestly, … the difference between the two world is so huge… That is why we have to give it our all.”

Inequality and the Climate Crisis

Max talks to Christiana about the emissions of the richest 1%. Oxfam’s recent calculation shows that the richest 1% caused double the CO2 emissions of the poorest 50% in the world. He asks her what role she thinks the rich play towards a chieving this positive future.

Sending a message to billionaires, Christiana says, “Take the lead! Pick up your responsibility and do what you can (should) do. … Those who have most historical responsibility for having caused the emissions that cause climate change have an outsized part of the responsibility. There is no doubt.”

She goes on to explain, “… If I, or you, or my country, or my town, or my company, has an outsized level of emissions, that actually means that it has a potential for outsized level of emission reductions. If I or you do not have emissions to speak of, we also don’t have the potential for emission reduction. It’s as simple as that.”

Is 2021 the year of hope?

The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is set to take place in 2021. Max asks Christiana is she’s hopeful about getting progressive outcomes from that and if yes, what makes her hopeful? And who are the key players that would bring a deal to the table?

Christians answers, “Let’s just start with geopolitics. The fact that China came out before the US election when nobody knew, what the result of the elections was going to be with their Peaking Emissions Target as well as with their Carbon Neutrality Target. Followed very quickly by Korea, Japan, South Africa, Columbia and the EU. …And the US that will be finally joining the concert of Nations that are decarbonizing their economy. If (taking them by their word,)you add all of that up, then you come to the astonishing result that just last year, 25% of the world economy was acting with carbon responsibility. This year, if we include the US already, 75% of the world economy is already acting with carbon responsibility. heres someone of a of a limitation. But you know taking them on their word. It is very huge!” She continues,” … On the corporate side, every day I see more and more companies that are understanding that this is actually good for them. That this actually is something that contributes to a thriving business because decarbonization means that they’re acting resource-smart, energy-smart, client-smart, (HR)-smart. It’s just the right thing to do. So, you have a growing number of companies that are resuming not just NetZero targets by 2050, but… now they’re changing to 2040 to 2035 to 2030! You even see companies that are saying they’re going to be climate-positive by 2030, meaning they’re going to be absorbing more carbon than they are emitting. … They have finally understood that profit is at risk if they’re not responsible companies.”

Going further she says, “… The finance sector is also moving much more towards pulling their capital from high carbon and very risky investments in portfolios to much lower risk investments and portfolios. …”

She concludes, “The beginning of this decade has actually started very well. That is not a guarantee that we’re going to be at half of our emissions by 2030. … but it’s a pretty good start!”

The Biden Administration

Christiana having mentioned the new US Administration, Nabil asks, “… How excited are you about the new US Administration? How much do you think they’re going to shift the dial?”

Christiana says what it was like when she received the news of Biden’s election and answers, “… It just came as such a relief to know that the United States will again join responsible nations in this. And as you say when the news came that John Kerry is the climate envoy, well, that just shows the commitment of the new administration because … John Kerry does not compromise on his principles and his targets for climate change. He just goes all out there which is what all of us have to be doing. … The piece to the new climate plan of the Biden-Harris Administration that warms my heart is the assessment that through these measures, they’re going to be creating 10 million new jobs. … And it proves that our recovery packages have to be green because that’s where the jobs are.”


Nabil says to Christiana, “… Now let’s fast-forward. Imagine (we’re) in January 2022. All the things that you wanted to happen in the 2021 climatic negotiations have happened. What did it deliver and how did people make that happen?”

Christiana says, “… If I can get my wish, I think COP26 would deliver a couple of things. First of all, increased ambition from all Governments with respect to where they were in 2015 because the Paris Agreement as you will remember foresees that every 5 years, countries will raise their ambition. That’s the only way to get to 1.5 as maximum temperature rise. … The second is, I would really like to see some resolution on the price of carbon. That has been the big gaping hole since 2015, since the Paris Agreement; because I think a price on carbon that is technology-neutral would help decarbonization very much. The third is, I would like to see some much more serious engagement on adaptation. … Finally, … I would like to see much more serious engagement from the global North on the financial flows to the global South with respect to both adaptation and mitigation. … My current pet topic is debt for climate swaps that would take on the experience that we all have already over years of nature swaps. … It would be a huge help for Africa to be able to be forgiven for their debt in exchange for investing into a host of climate opportunities that each of those countries have.”

Max and Nabil thank Christiana for giving us an agenda, optimism, hope and something to fight for. They then switch gears, talking to Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam’s Climate Change Policy Lead.

Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam Climate Change Policy Lead. Copyright: Nafkote Dabi/LinkedIn

Can we Really be That Optimistic?

Max asks Nafkote if she shares in Christian’s optimism and she answers, “I think there are two sides to this when we talk about optimism. I think about frontline communities and wonder if they feel optimistic in the middle of multiple crises. … Farmers in the Horn of East Africa for instance, in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia. Year after year, they are experiencing either destructive flooding, droughts and – this past year – huge swarms of locusts devastating crops. And now La Nina is forecasted for next year and over 50 million people are expected to go hungry. So, this climate crisis is an existential crisis for many right now. … Perhaps (optimism)is a choice for people who have some control, but people who are living at the mercy of elements, I don’t think (it)is a choice. It’s what is needed for survival.”

Are Climate Movements being Heard?

We’ve seen a bold, powerful push from climate movements around the world. In fact, more than we’ve seen before. Nabil asks if it’s working and if these movements are being heard by world leaders.

Nafkote firmly affirms, “Yes, definitely. We are seeing the growth of not only climate movements, but movements that intersect with climate like anti-racist, feminist, youth movements and so on; and these movements are coming together. This is a sign that ordinary people are trying to gain some control. This is a great thing, but it’s important to highlight that we’re nowhere near to what is needed to tackle the climate emergency. We’re currently on a path to nearly 3⁰ of warming by the end of the century. So, immediate action is needed right now by governments and corporates to reduce emissions.

What Do We Need to Hear/See?

Max asks what Nafkote would say to world leaders; to make the necessary difference.

Nafkote answers, “… The first thing is deeper cuts in emission and … to support vulnerable countries with finance so that they can adapt to the climate crisis. So, … there have been commitments (and) pledges made by Governments … (but)there’s a huge need right now, to make deeper cuts in emissions and also to scale-up finance; especially rich countries need to scale up finance to support vulnerable countries … and this is clearly stated in the Paris agreement.”

That brings us to our last episode of the year 2020. How about a New Year’s gift in podcast form? Christiana and her team have their own podcast called Outrage and Optimism. In Christiana’s words, “We call it Outrage and Optimism because we think we still need to be continuously outraged about what we haven’t done but increasingly optimistic about what is going on and what more we can do. ” Enjoy!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year everyone! We wish you prosperity, happiness, good health and hope! – with love from Liz, Max, Nabil, Nadia & all of us at Oxfam.