Can this woman convince the world to act on climate change?

Last Updated Oct 2, 2015 10:42 AM EDT

Almost a decade ago, Al Gore scared the world with an Academy Award-winning documentary that argued climate change was real and inaction could destroy the planet.

But as global leaders gear up to negotiate an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions in December, the doomsday scenario in "An Inconvenient Truth" has given way to campaign led by U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres that plays up the economic benefits of taking action - whether that be shifting to an economy fueled by clean energy or getting into the business of selling this technology to countries looking to shift away from fossil fuels.

"The United States or China or Tuvalu, to choose a tiny little economy - none of them are doing this to save the planet. Maybe it surprises you that I say that," Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told CBS News in an exclusive interview.

"Let's be realistic here," she continued. "All of these countries are putting their best foot forward because they understand it's good for their economies. And that is the most powerful driving force - the self interest of every country is what is behind all of these measures."

Asked about a good number of Americans, including some Republican presidential candidates, who oppose government action on climate change, Figueres returned to the economy and the huge potential out there for solar, wind and other renewable technology.

Figueres' comments come as the International Energy Agency on Friday concluded that renewable energy will represent the largest single source of electricity growth over the next five years, driven by falling costs and aggressive expansion in emerging economies. In a new report, the IEA projected that the growth will top 700 gigawatts - more than twice Japan's current installed power capacity - and will account for almost two-thirds of net additions to global power capacity.

"Can the United States afford to stay out of the largest market that will exist this century? It's a pretty simple decision that needs to be taken," she said.

"It would make me very sad were China and India increasingly to take the lead in being the developers and importers of these new technologies that everyone is going to be needing," she continued. "This is not a small market. The global market is going to be demanding clean energy and the question is, who is going to be producing it? Who is going to be exporting it? If the United States wants to leave that export capacity to China and India, that is a choice that needs to be made. But it doesn't seem to make too much sense."

World leaders first seriously tackled climate change in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol. But the United States never signed onto it and it has largely been panned for failing to require any emissions cuts from developing countries, including the world's largest emitter, China, and other big polluters like India.

Since then, world leaders have been trying to get all nations to agree on a deal that would prevent temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above what they were in preindustrial times. But the negotiations have often collapsed - most famously in Copenhagen in 2009 - in acrimony between rich and poor nations fighting over who should take the lead in solving the problem. More recently, talks have bogged down over who would pay for poor nations to transform their economies and adapt to a warmer world.

Figueres, who has been around the negotiations since the 1990s when she was part of the Costa Rican negotiating team, said she expects things will be different this time around.

"Yes, we are going to have an agreement in Paris," she said, noting that as many as 80 governments have submitted their own climate action plans ahead of the U.N.'s mandatory proposal deadline Thursday. "Of the 195 countries that need to agree to this, I haven't heard of a single one saying they are out of here, they are no longer interested."

Figueres said the availability of cheaper and more reliable renewable energy sources is one of the key factors explaining why countries are more willing now to put aside their own political ambitions in favor of a global agreement.

"Renewable energy technology, in particular solar, have come down in their costs remarkably. Compared to where we were five to six years ago, solar is 80 percent cheaper, 40 percent more efficient... Solar and wind have become much, much more solutions that are possible," she said, noting that they attracted $270 billion in investments last year. "Technology has definitely come to our rescue."

It also has helped that hundreds of regulations aimed at combating climate change have been adopted at the national levels, Figueres said, and that there has been a significant uptick in green financing. She cited a report from the U.N. and other institutions, out last week, which found $2.6 trillion of capital is "shifting from old technologies to new and clean technologies."

Then, there is the climate itself.

Not a day goes by without some news anywhere from the United States to Bangladesh to Antarctica showcasing how the world is becoming a hotter and more hostile place due to rising emissions in the atmosphere - whether that be a historic drought in California, melting ice sheets in the Arctic or raging wildfires in Alaska.

"There is not a single country that has not already suffered some impact of climate change and that is increasing in scale and intensity," Figueres said.

csglobaltempandco21880-2012v3.png
Global annual average temperature (as measured over both land and oceans) has increased by more than 1.5 degrees F (0.8 degrees C) since 1880 (through 2012). Red bars show temperatures above the long-term average, and blue bars indicate temperatures below the long-term average. The black line shows atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in parts per million (ppm).
The National Climate Assessment/Karl et al. 2009

It also hasn't hurt that Pope Francis has called climate change action a moral imperative or that China and the United States last week came out with a joint statement on climate change that included support for reaching a new deal.

Earlier, the two countries together came out with a series of actions to cut their emissions - with the United States agreeing to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. China, meanwhile, agreed to peak its emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible, and increase the share of energy that China will derive from sources other than fossil fuels.

"It makes a big difference because the United States is the largest historical emitter and China is the largest current emitter," Figueres said. "Therefore, it is really very crucial that both of these powers accept their own responsibility and their leadership individually but, even more important, that they come together and collaborate with each other."

Despite all this positive momentum, Figueres knows a lot can go wrong. Even if a deal is reached in Paris this December, she insists there won't be much to celebrate, since a lot will depend on countries honoring their pledges in the coming years and decades.

"Frankly, I wouldn't pop the champagne bottle because we have really pushed this. We have pushed this beyond what is safe," she said. "An agreement in Paris, I think, would tell us that we are finally, finally stepping up to the responsibility that we all share. I wouldn't use it as a huge celebration. I would be actually be humble about it and say, 'OK wonderful, we have finally stood up to our responsibility,' and then we have to start the hard task of actually getting on the ground everything we intend."

Still, Figueres, the mother of two grown daughters, hopes that a deal would send a signal to her children and young people all around the world that political leaders have their best interests at heart.

"I'm doing it for the next generation. Most people who are working on climate change are doing it because of that as well," said Figueres, who laughed off a suggestion this could be a good resume builder should she have presidential aspirations in Costa Rica. "It's young people right now who are actually in dire straits if we don't get this solved, if we don't get this back on track."

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com