Former Costa Rican president José Marĺa Figueres has become president of the Carbon War Room. CCW talks to Figueres about his goals for CWR now he has taken up the role.

Jose Maria Figueres has become president of Carbon War Room, inheriting from co-founder and first CEO Jigar Shah a vital young organisation, already making considerable waves in the environmental sector with a new approach to enabling business to reduce carbon emissions. Figueres says: “Jigar, our first CEO, together with an extraordinary group of collaborators, was able to establish a very different course for the CWR within the environmental movement. While we value the work of those organisations doing advocacy work, and we support those that operate in the policy space, the War Room is all about supporting entrepreneurial, market-driven approaches that reduce carbon emissions today. “Even though we are an extremely young organisation (founded towards the end of 2009), our track record is a good one and our achievements impressive.”

The world’s greatest challenge

Figueres already has an impressive track record as a political leader with a keen understanding of economics. A former president of Costa Rica and successful businessman, Figueres has excellent credentials and experience to bring to the War Room, and believes it has an important role to play in the battle to reduce carbon – a battle he says is the biggest challenge currently facing the world.

Figueres says: “Reducing carbon emissions represents the single most important economic opportunity of our lives. At a time when the world is mesmerised by the current economic crisis and exploring ways to get out of it, the transition to a low carbon economy represents the most viable path and achievable course of action. This fact however, is a closely kept secret. Most still see the environment as a cost rather than an opportunity to reinvent business models, create new ventures and innovate in many areas of the global economy to produce the jobs we desperately need, and create opportunities for greater wellbeing.”

Figueres has clear goals for the War Room’s activities in the initial years of his presidency, closely linked to what he believes are the main challenges facing both business and governments worldwide. He says: “Today there are two wars we need to fight and win: the war on poverty, which is increasing because of the global economic crisis, and the war on climate change, which requires carbon emissions to be reduced.

“With the economic might the world has produced and our proven technologies, we can for the first time in the history of humanity fight and win both wars with the same plan: transitioning to a low carbon economy. My ambition is for the Carbon War Room to be recognised as both a thought leader in this movement and an action-oriented organisation.”

As the world’s environmental and economic challenges are linked, so are the skills and experience Figueres brings to his new position leading the CWR. In charge of what he describes as a “committed and extraordinary staff”, Figueres believes his can-do mentality and adherence to an approach based on team-working means further successes for the War Room will come swiftly. He says: “The one thread connecting my business career with my years of public service and my international work is precisely seeing the environment as a business opportunity. Having all three perspectives is a ‘value-added’ for organising the multi-sector approaches often required to solve climate change challenges.”

Overcoming barriers to change

Solving these challenges will not be a simple process however. Barriers to progress remain. Figueres says: “About 50% of total carbon emissions can be reduced today in a profitable way, without any need for government or intergovernmental regulations or agreements. Therefore, making this clearly known and widely recognised, as well as knocking down barriers to business approaches that can deliver emission reductions, constitute primary responsibilities for us. But unfortunately, with a few exceptions, I don’t see any serious leadership coming from governments on these issues that are so critically important to our planet being a safe and hospitable place to live on. They know the facts, they have seen the evidence, and they know inaction will get us nowhere. Yet they persist on making snail-like progress at best.”

Private sector leadership

With governments failing in their responsibility to take action, leadership from the private sector is essential to progress – and this is where CWR’s approach will make all the difference. Figueres says: “As governments are not leading, one would think they could at least get out of the way. Fifteen hundred CEOs from over 60 countries were present at the Rio+20 conference – a clear example leadership is coming from the private sector. We need to build on that, while contining to support intergovernmental negotiation processes, hoping some day soon there will be breakthrough.”

The challenges to be met and barriers to be overcome are powerful ones, and the temptation for many is to throw up their hands and admit defeat – or wait for someone else to solve the problem of climate change for them. But the briefest of glances over Figueres’ past record make clear this is not in his nature. He says: “We don’t have all the answers to all the challenges, but we can start on a sure footing by reducing those emissions we can profitably reduce. And as new technologies are developed, we can deploy them as well."

“We have a window of opportunity to act, which is closing on us. Unless we start investing in the transition to a low carbon economy, we will lock ourselves into a trajectory of higher emissions simply because of the economic lifecycle of the investments that need to be made to meet rising global demand.”

Action is needed, and the War Room, under the leadership of Figueres, takes its role as an enabler of business action seriously. And as Figueres says: “At the end of the day, this is about leadership and implementation. Against the reality that ‘there is no Planet B’, there is a compelling moral and business case to starting acting now and acting now is what the Carbon War Room will do.”