Costa Rican Emerging as Leading Candidate for UN Climate Chief

Carbon Market Experience, Trust-Building Win Christiana Figueres Accolades

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Costa Rica is the latest country to throw its hat into the UN climate chief ring with the official nomination of a popular carbon-market proponent to head up the world’s top climate body.

President Oscar Aria formally nominated Christiana Figueres, Costa Rica’s long-time lead climate negotiator, for the job on March 11. A new global warming chief is expected to fill the coming vacancy of Yvo de Boer, the Dutch national who has led the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for four arduous years.

“We believe that Mrs. Figueres can play a key role in the executive secretary, building bridges and building understanding among the key players in the climate change issue,” Jorge Urbina, permanent representative to the United Nations for Costa Rica, told reporters on Monday.

Figueres’ resume includes a long list of UN-related climate positions over the past 15 years, including a turn as Latin American representative on the executive board of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and stints as co-chair of CDM negotiating groups.

The CDM, the world’s second-largest carbon market, is the Kyoto Protocol scheme that allows rich states to invest in clean-energy projects in poorer nations in exchange for offsetting their emissions.

Figueres’ familiarity with emissions trading has made her a leading choice among market participants.

Henry Derwent, the president of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), a Geneva-based group that helps govern carbon trading worldwide, called Figueres an “excellent” candidate.

“She has a history of a lot of exposure to — and dealings with — the carbon market,” Derwent told SolveClimate, “both in terms of the compliance market, particularly the CDM compliance in the European Union, and also the voluntary market.”

Top-notch climate leadership, however, will require more than carbon market know-how.

The UN is looking for a new chief against the backdrop of December’s failed Copenhagen climate change summit, which resulted in the non-binding “Copenhagen Accord.” The unpopular, three-page document couldn’t gain the unanimous approval needed for adoption and was merely “noted” by the 193 nations represented at the conference. To date, around 110 nations have chosen to formally associate with the accord, though its standing remains unclear.

“All of us who have been in this process agree that we didn’t like the Copenhagen process,” said Figueres, during a press conference Monday designed to shore up support for her candidacy. “It was not inclusive. It was not transparent. It was not effective.”

Above all, said Figueres, the Copenhagen talks eroded trust. The confidence problem, she said, now runs deep “at all levels.”

Figures highlighted the waning trust in climate science and in the negotiations themselves, on top of the long-broken trust between rich and poor countries.


Rebuilding Trust

Most analysts agree that appointing a developing country to lead the UNFCCC could help restore trust among nations in 2010. The previous three executive secretaries came from European backgrounds.

There is “no question” a developing nation must take the helm at this stage, said Derwent. “The process has not managed to mend the constant lack of trust between developed and developing countries.”

Derwent said Figueres “has the confidence of both North and South countries and of both private and public sector.” That, he said, “is a rare thing.”

Other candidates nominated for the top job include India’s Vijai Sharma, a senior member of its environmental ministry, who has the support of China, according to reports. Indonesia is soon expected to nominate a candidate. South Africa has picked Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, a former environment minister and perhaps the toughest competition for Figueres.

“I think Marthinus van Schalkwyk is a very good candidate as well,” said Derwent, citing the minister’s experience as chief spokesperson of the G77 for the Kyoto negotiations.

Alexander Sarac, general counsel and associate director at EcoSecurities, an Ireland-based clean energy project developer, said “all the candidates currently standing for the role of UNFCCC Executive Secretary are of the highest caliber with excellent but slightly differing qualities.”

Figueres, he said, “brings a combination of integrity, experience, knowledge, understanding and enthusiasm to the table” and “would make an excellent choice.”

Environmental groups more or less agree.

David Turnbull, the head of the Climate Action Network (CAN), a coalition of around 500 non-governmental organizations promoting action to limit climate change, said he was “pleased to see the caliber of all the candidates.”

CAN recently sent a letter to the UNFCCC outlining eight principles it wants to see in a potential successor. These range from a commitment to the science to political savvy and leadership.

“As far as I can tell, Figueres definitely meets a lot of the principles,” Turnbull told SolveClimate. “She has the support of a number of developing countries, parties and colleagues. And she definitely has a reputation of being an astute negotiator and understanding of the issues.”

While the CDM has its faults, Turnbull added, the idea of someone who has deep understanding of carbon markets would be a bonus.

Environmental group Greenpeace said it would not comment on candidates until all names have been submitted. But Tove Ryding, climate policy advisor for the organization, said trust-building skills are key for a new chief.

“The position requires someone who is hard working, experienced and effective in rebuilding trust between the countries, while ensuring that the voices of the most vulnerable are not sidelined by the most powerful,” Ryding said.


Next Steps

The names of the nominees must be submitted by the end of March to the UN, where they will be vetted by a high-level panel chosen by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Candidates will be interviewed, and Ban is expected to make a final decision in July.

Figueres said she has received “good will” from government officials in Latin America and around the world, non-profit organizations and the private sector.

A Facebook campaign with 1,000-plus members has been set up to pull in support.

Some close observers, however, say Figures could be a long shot for the post, given that the No. 2 spot at the UN Development Program recently went to another Costa Rica citizen, Rebecca Grynspan.

“Yes, it may be a stretch to think that a country of four million would have another position at the UN,” said Figueres. “But frankly, it is the secretary-general’s call, and I trust the secretary-general to make a decision based on the competence of the people who are presenting themselves on their track records.”


See also:

For Developing Nation Advocates, Hope and Fear for a New UN Climate Chief

More than a Quarter of World’s Poorest States ‘Associate’ with Copenhagen Accord

Conference of Parties ‘Takes Note Of’ Copenhagen Accord