Is Figueres the right choice as UN climate chief?


There is much to commend in the appointment of Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat.

In fact, if you were to develop the composite CV of the ideal person to replace the out-going Yvo de Boer it would look a lot like the resume submitted by Figueres.

Having been involved in international climate change talks since 1995 she knows the intricacies of the labyrinthine negotiating procedures inside out and backwards, and just as importantly knows where the bodies are buried. At the same time she has by all accounts managed to avoid alienating or angering colleagues in the negotiating process, a quite remarkable achievement given her prominent role and the fractious atmosphere that has surrounded the talks over the past few years.

The appointment of a woman from a relatively small developing country to one of the most high profile UN posts is also to be welcomed, particularly given that the climate change negotiations continue to be dominated by middle aged men in dark suits from the world's most powerful economies.

But at the same time this is no case of tokenism, a political insider from the day she was born - she is the daughter of three times Costa Rican president Jose Figueres Ferrer - Figueres has serious diplomatic clout. She is also an indisputable world leader in the field of sustainable development having founded the Center for Sustainable Development of the Americas (CSDA) and worked as Director of Renewable Energy in the Americas (REIA), and she clearly genuinely and passionately cares about the urgent need to combat climate change.

Add in the fact that Cost Rica is one of the leading developing economies when it comes to tackling climate change having become one of the first countries to pledge to become carbon neutral by 2021 and you have a hugely impressive new UN climate chief.

As one UN insider told Reuters, "she's well liked and a competent negotiator... If they wanted a technical bureaucrat, she's probably as good as you'll get".

And there in lies the one question mark over Figueres' appointment. Does the climate change negotiating process need another "technical bureaucrat" in charge?

It was bureaucracy and arcane procedural requirements that pushed last year's Copenhagen Summit to the brink of collapse on numerous occasions, and it remains to be seen if a bureaucrat who has been involved in the negotiating process for 15 years can drive through the procedural reforms that many observers believe are essential if a positive outcome is to be delivered before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

The nature of Figueres' appointment also has the potential to spark conflict at the next major summit in Cancun, Mexico in November.

According to various reports, her appointment was partly the result of a groundswell of support from island states and poorer nations who desperately wanted someone from a smaller country to lead the negotiations after they were left sidelined by more powerful countries at Copenhagen.

This is entirely understandable and in many ways just - it is about time those smaller countries that will suffer most from climate change had more leverage at the negotiating table. But if De Boer's Dutch background meant he was occasionally accused of bias towards industrialised countries during the negotiations, Figueres runs the risk of being portrayed as a mouthpiece for small developing countries.

It is too early to tell if this will become an issue and all the early mood music surrounding the appointment from both industrialised and developing countries has been universally positive. But many industrialised countries are fiercely opposed to calls from poorer nations for the Kyoto Protocol to remain as the framework for any new deal and both industrialised and emerging economies are refusing to accept demands from island states that temperature rises be limited to just 1.5 degrees Centigrade. As such it becomes clear that Figueres will find her position weakened if (justly or otherwise) she is perceived to favour developing countries.

There were those who hoped De Boer's resignation would allow for a left field appointment that would enable an entirely new figure to take control of the arcane world of UN climate change negotiations and give the long-running talks the shake down they desperately require.

For the sake of the planet, let's hope that Figueres' status as a climate talks' insider and career diplomat does not stop her from reinvigorating the moribund process and ushering in a historic and binding new climate change treaty. Her CV certainly suggests she is up to the job, now it is just a case of wait and see.

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