Costa Rican Christiana Figueres Named UN Climate Change Chief

Costa Rican Christiana Figueres Named UN Climate Change Chief

NEW YORK, New York, May 17, 2010 (ENS) – Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica has been selected to lead United Nations’ efforts to combat climate change.

Appointed today by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, she will become executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, when Yvo de Boer of The Netherlands steps down July 1, 2010 after four years as executive secretary.

“Ms. Figueres is an international leader on strategies to address global climate change and brings to this position a passion for the issue, deep knowledge of the stakeholders and valuable hands-on experience with the public sector, nonprofit sector and private sector,” said the secretary-general’s spokesman Martin Nesirky in announcing the appointment.

As her first task, Figueres will lead the next round of high-level global talks on climate change that will culminate in a two week summit starting November 29 in Cancun, Mexico.

Christiana Figueres, as Costa Rica’s nominee for executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, addresses a press conference on her candidacy. March 22, 2010. (Photo by Eskinder Debebe courtesy UN)

The Figueres appointment comes five months after the Copenhagen Accord was reached at last December’s UN climate conference in the Danish capital.

That non-binding pact, endorsed by 111 governments, aims to jump-start immediate action on climate change and guide negotiations on long-term action, pledging to raise $100 billion annually by 2020.

It also includes an agreement to keep the global average temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius and efforts to reduce or limit emissions of the six greenhouse gases considered responsible for climate change.

At a March 22 news conference at UN Headquarters in New York introducing her as a candidate for the job, Figueres said she agreed with the secretary-general’s frequent description of climate change as the greatest challenge facing the human family, adding that the December Copenhagen Conference had made that point even more evident and “painful.”

Figueres said that, inspired by U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong’s words, she liked to think of the Copenhagen Accord as a “big step for the community of nations, but a very small step for the planet.”

It was a big step for the community of nations, she said, because, for the first time, the international community had agreed to strive for a maximum temperature increase of fewer than two degrees Celsius, and also because all large emitters, as well as many small ones, had actually made public mitigation pledges in a multilateral context.

Explaining why she considered the Copenhagen Accord “a small step for the planet,” she said “below two degrees has a huge range.” Was it 1.5, 1.6 or 1.7 degrees? she asked.

“That may not mean much to those in industrialized countries, but to the most vulnerable countries, the small island states, the difference between 1.5 and 1.6 or 1.7 is the difference of survival, so that needs to be further specified as we move further into the negotiations,” Figueres said.

She pointed out that the current level of climate mitigation pledges on the table is not enough even to reach the two degree Celsius maximum. Most of the several available analyses of the pledges agreed that the maximum temperature would end up at a three degree Celsius maximum, she said.

Figueres noted that some analyses had suggested that the total of mitigation pledges could end up at 3.9 degrees Celsius, which she said was “clearly insufficient” to ward off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, shares a laugh with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer at the Copenhagen Climate Summit, December 18, 2009. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

She emphasized that this year’s Cancun climate summit has to be “quite different” from Copenhagen since it must be oriented toward results.

While the past few years have been spent on creating the architecture for a new chapter of the climate regime, it is time to shift the focus from architecture to very concrete deliverables, she said. Such a shift presents challenges because member states have to ensure that there is no gap in the climate regime as the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires at the end of 2012.

At Cancun, “We really need to be very creative and very innovative in how we approach our work while still remaining within the rules of procedures of the UN,” said Figueres.

It is widely agreed among participants that the Copenhagen process had been neither inclusive nor transparent, had not been effective and had eroded trust, she said. “The challenge we are facing is that the atmosphere within which we have been working over the past few years has been pervaded by a deep lack of trust at all levels of the system.”

There is a lack of trust in climate science; in the negotiations themselves, and whether such a complex issue can be negotiated in a multilateral process; in whether governments should take the lead, as opposed to the private sector or civil society; and between the North and South, she explained.

That erosion of trust pervades the inside of the Secretariat itself. “Way too many roads and not enough bridges have been built,” Figueres declared, stressing the need for change.

“I don’t want to pretend that this is something that we can do overnight,” she said.” Trust-building is a process over time. It will not happen miraculously. It will certainly not appear magically in Cancun. It is a very difficult path, but I am convinced that it is the path that we need to follow, that we need to embark on immediately,” she said. “It is the only path that will lead us to creativity, innovation and any sort of agreement in Cancun and beyond.”

Christiana Figueres at the UNFCCC 2004 annual conference (Photo courtesy ENB)

Figueres, 53, was born in San Jose, Costa Rica into a family prominent in public service. Her father, Jose Figueres Ferrer, was president of Costa Rica three times: 1948-49, 1953–1958, and 1970-1974. As the leader of the 1948 Revolution he is considered the founder of modern democracy in Costa Rica. Her mother, Karen Olsen Beck, served as Costa Rican Ambassador to Israel in 1982 and was elected Member of Congress 1990-1994.

With degrees from Swarthmore College, the London School of Economics, and several advanced degrees in the United States, in 1994 Figueres became director of the Technical Secretariat of the Renewable Energy in the Americas program, today housed at the Organization of American States, promoting hemispheric policies to advance renewable energy technologies in Latin America.

Representing the government of Costa Rica, Figueres has been a negotiator of the UN Convention on Climate Change since 1995.

In 1995 she founded and became the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Sustainable Development in the Americas, promoting the participation of Latin American countries in the Climate Change Convention.

In 1999 she conceived and established the first carbon finance program in the developing world, the the Latin American Carbon Program within the Andean Development Corporation. And in 2001, she negotiated the first emission reduction purchase agreement between an industrialized country and a regional development bank.

From 1998 through 2007, she envisioned and helped establish national climate change programs in Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.

In 1997 she provided international strategy for achieving developing country support and approval of the Kyoto Protocol and the Clean Development Mechanism.

From 2007 to 2009 she was vice president of the Bureau of the Climate Convention, representing Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the years, she has chaired numerous international climate negotiations.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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