If nations’ Covid recovery packages do not prioritise renewables and other clean technologies, the world will be in “serious trouble”, according to Christiana Figueres, one of the main architects of the December 2015 Paris Agreement.

The former UN climate chief told Reuters’ Energy Transition Europe online conference that $12trn of government stimulus money had already been pledged by governments around the world, and that funding of that scale was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“If we miss [this window of opportunity], we are in serious trouble,” she said. “It is this decade, the 2020s, during which we have to cut our emissions by half in order to stand any chance of addressing climate change in a way that allows us to move forward with a stable economy.

“And it is these ten years that are going to be determined by the carbon content or the direction of those recovery packages. We will not be able to again borrow $12trn. This is it, this is the once-in-a-decade, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Let’s remember that we are borrowing that money — and that you and I will not pay that money back. It will be our children and our grandchildren, so we better make darned sure that that money is being invested for future generations’ wellbeing, and certainly not [to] their detriment.”

However, the Costa Rican said she had been buoyed by the recent net-zero-emission pledges by China, the EU, Japan, South Korea and others — and believes that Joe Biden’s election victory in the US will kick-start renewed international cooperation on tackling global warming.

“What I think is very new… is the understanding that addressing climate change is not a burden, it’s actually an opportunity,” she said.

“And as soon as every corporation, every financial institution, every city, every state, every country understand that their own interest is actually decarbonising the economy, then actually, from a very self-interested point of view, we can find the sweet spot where we can bring everyone together for the global need.”

She added that her generation has grown up with “linear and gradual change”, but that is “so five minutes ago, as my daughters would say”.

“One thing that we have to truly get used to is exponential change — exponential times, exponential technologies, exponential shifts in capital markets… because that’s what we’re going to be witnessing and contributing to this decade.”

What to expect from the Biden administration

Figueres said that President-elect Biden’s climate policy will go along “two parallel tracks that will be mutually reinforcing”.

“The first track and the very urgent track for the new Biden administration is to ensure that their climate policies are actually also going to be Covid-recovery packages and vice-versa.

“He has already said that his investment into clean technologies will produce ten million jobs. That’s exactly the way he to say it, he can’t say ‘here’s an investment in climate change that can reduce emissions over the next 30 years’ — it will, but that’s not the point. The point here is there has to be an immediate benefit for those families that are truly hurting under the Covid economic downturn.”

Biden’s second track, she explained, will be to reach out to other countries to work together on climate issues — nations that may have been unwilling to act after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement.

“He’s also understood that while domestic support and economic recovery is urgent, so equally urgent and important is to reach out to other countries that have perhaps been waiting… to figure out what that the US is going to do and what can be done here in a collaborative form.

“Because what we have understood from the Paris Agreement is that countries individually, corporations individually, cities individually, can do a lot, but they can do so much more if they collaborate with each other.”

Figueres said that since leaving her role as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, her Global Optimism group has been “working to change the narrative of climate change from a doom-and-gloom narrative to ‘yes, we can’ and this is the most exciting opportunity that humankind has ever been given.”