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Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Patricia Espinosa speaks during an interview with Reuters at a United Nations Information Center offices in Washington, on Dec. 7, 2021.ELIZABETH FRANTZ/Reuters

As Patricia Espinosa prepares to step down as U.N. climate chief, she has a warning for the world: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must not distract leaders from the escalating climate crisis.

Even as the war is causing “so much suffering”, global warming remains the “most rapidly growing threat to human species on the planet”, Espinosa told Reuters.

Espinosa said she planned to step down as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when her second, three-year term ends in July.

The UNFCCC is the 196-country treaty that convenes global negotiations on tackling climate change.

“This is an agenda that cannot be postponed,” she said, adding the energy security concerns brought on by the war - Russia is a major global supplier of fossil fuels - could hasten countries towards clean energy.

The European Union will publish plans on Tuesday to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, for security reasons. Germany - Europe’s biggest economy - has also brought forward its shift to renewable power. Europe gets 40% of its gas from Russia.

“It’s a very important change in the way the issue of energy transition is being addressed,” Espinosa said.

Moscow says its action in Ukraine is a “special operation” to disarm its neighbour and arrest leaders it calls “neo-Nazis”. Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a pretext for an invasion to conquer a country of 44 million people.

Countries’ moves to escape dependency on Russian energy could prompt more domestic coal use, however. Since the invasion, Germany has also announced plans to build terminals to receive gas from other countries.

But climate analysts echoed Espinosa’s hope that the geopolitical crisis will mark a pivot for global climate action.

There’s no evidence so far that “climate will be squeezed out of the political or fiscal agenda of governments,” said Alex Scott, climate diplomacy leader at think tank E3G. Governments can “handle responses to both of these crises.”

Change of guard

When Espinosa took on the job in 2016, global climate action was at a high point. Months before, U.N. climate negotiations had yielded the Paris Agreement, committing countries to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, and aim for 1.5C.

In the years since, millions of people around the world have rallied for climate action. Countries including the two biggest polluters - China and the United States - have ramped up their emissions-cutting targets. More than 80% of new electricity capacity added in 2020 was renewable.

Yet global CO2 emissions continue to climb. Promised funding from rich countries to help poorer nations fight climate change has not arrived. And the 1.1C of warming already seen has worsened weather extremes - from deadly heatwaves and downpours to catastrophic wildfires. A U.N. climate science report last week warned of escalating destruction if countries fail to slash emissions and prepare for a hotter planet.

“We have moved in the right direction,” Espinosa said. “But at the same time ... of course, I wish we would have achieved more.”

The U.N. climate summit, COP26, in November, clinched an agreement that countries will upgrade their emissions-cutting pledges this year, since current plans would fail to limit warming to 1.5C.

Espinosa said she will focus her final months on urging more ambitious pledges ahead of the next U.N. climate summit, COP27, in Egypt in November.

She will also push forward contentious talks on how to deal with the “loss and damage” caused by climate-related disasters in poorer countries. Vulnerable countries’ demands for funding for disaster compensation have so far been resisted by wealthy nations in the U.N. talks.

Espinosa said she did not have specific plans for after she steps down, but hoped to continue contributing to environmental sustainability. The United Nations has yet to begin the process of appointing her successor.

The biggest challenge facing her successor at the UNFCCC, she said, is speed - a test for a process that can take years to negotiate a single agreement among its nearly 200 countries.

“What is very important is to get a sense of urgency in this process,” Espinosa said. “We don’t have time for gradual progress anymore.”

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