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Posted on on July 2nd, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (

date Fri, Jul 2, 2010 at 5:11 PM
subject [UNelections] New Leadership at UNFCCC – Figueres Takes Office Next Week.
UNelections Monitor, Issue #144 – New Leadership at UNFCCC – Figueres Takes Office Next Week

New York, July 2, 2010 The United Nations’ new head for climate change negotiations takes office in Bonn, Germany next week. Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, who succeeds Yvo de Boer of the Netherlands, was selected in May in a process featuring competition and a greater level of formality than in other recent appointments, but which also was kept largely confidential. She is the first person from a developing country to hold the position of Executive Secretary. The appointment of a woman also has been noted and welcomed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Figueres on May 17, and the appointment was endorsed by the Bureau of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on the same day.

Many have welcomed Figueres’ appointment, including environmental organizations, governments, and private companies. An op-ed on the news site Business Green wrote, “if you were to develop the composite CV of the ideal person to replace … de Boer it would look a lot like the resume submitted by Figueres.” The UNFCCC said, “Ms. Figueres’ leadership at the helm of the UNFCCC comes at a crucial time in global efforts to take effective action on climate change,” referring in part to the upcoming conference in Cancún, Mexico, where some hope that a legally binding agreement will be reached.

While de Boer’s resignation took effect yesterday, July 1, Figueres’ term begins on July 8, next Thursday, the UNFCCC stated in a recent Note Verbale.

About Christiana Figueres

Figueres has served as Costa Rica’s climate change negotiator for 15 years, and she is credited with helping to secure Latin America’s cooperation with the Kyoto Protocol.

She has particular experience on the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM aims to stimulate sustainable development and emissions reductions by allowing countries to trade “credits” toward their emissions limitation commitments. She represented Latin America and the Caribbean on the Executive Board of the CDM in 2007 and co-Chaired the negotiating group on the CDM at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of the UNFCCC. Figueres is said to have been a “key architect” of the new financial instrument “programmatic CDM” with four “groundbreaking publications that have marked global thinking on this novel concept.”

Figueres also advises private companies involved in climate change mitigation, including the Carbon Rating Agency (CRA), which seeks to establish standards for the global carbon markets.

Figueres has non-profit experience as well. She founded the Center for Sustainable Development in the Americas (CSDA), which promotes Latin American countries’ participation in the UNFCCC, and she has served on the board of the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS).

Figueres began her career in 1982 as Minister Counselor for Costa Rica’s embassy in Bonn, Germany. In Costa Rica, she was Director of International Cooperation in the Ministry of Planning, and later became Chief of Staff to the Minister of Agriculture.

She has a Masters degree in Anthropology from the London School of Economics and a Certificate in Organizational Development from Georgetown University. She speaks Spanish, English and German.

Figueres’ publications include analysis of the design of the climate regime and book chapters on global environmental governance published by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

Upon her appointment as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Figueres expressed her “gratitude” and her “great respect for the institution and a deep commitment to UNFCCC process. There is no task that is more urgent, more compelling or more sacred than that of protecting the climate of our planet for our children and grandchildren.”

In interviews since the appointment, she has expressed the view that, despite calls from some developing countries, a binding agreement is not the goal for the upcoming Cancún conference. Instead, the next step is trust-building, to repair the current “trust deficit,” through fulfillment of earlier promises, including to “curb emissions, and – on the part of the rich – to provide money to help developing nations adapt to climate impacts.” The needed trust-building atmosphere began in Bonn earlier this month (this perception was echoed by several delegates recently).

She also has noted that UNFCCC conferences must observe transparency and inclusiveness. Having observed that their absence at the Copenhagen Conference contributed to its disappointing outcome, “what we need to be mindful of is that all interests that will be there among parties of the UNFCCC are represented” (BBC). Moreover, the UN is the only viable forum for dealing with climate change, as only the UN offers every country a voice when negotiating, and there is “no alternative” to it in tackling complex climate challenges (Xinhua).

Finally, she has noted the importance of the appointment of an Executive Secretary from the developing world. Her appointment marks the “first time this is in the hands of the developing world, and I think that’s actually quite symbolic and represents the much greater role that the developing world is taking in the climate negotiations” (Living on Earth interview, May 28).

Post of Executive Secretary

The UNFCCC is an international treaty, the “parent” of the legally binding 1997 Kyoto Protocol. States that have signed the UNFCCC are known collectively as the Conference of Parties (COP). The COP’s current focus is to negotiate a new international agreement on climate change, a “successor” to the Kyoto Protocol, to take effect in 2012. With its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, the treaty would “shape the way countries power their economies” and thus is very complex to negotiate.

The COP is governed by a Bureau. The Executive Secretary is the head of the Bureau.

The Bureau is made up of delegates from 11 COP member countries, representing the five geographic regions. The Bureau handles administrative and management issues of the negotiation process, advises the President of the COP, and serves to represent each regional bloc and other groupings for negotiation. The current members of the COP Bureau are: Australia, Bahamas, Denmark, South Korea, Mali, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Sudan and Russia.

Figueres will have five months to prepare for the next COP meeting, which will take place in Cancún, Mexico beginning in late-November. Preparatory talks will take place in Bonn, Germany in August and in China in October.

The position of Executive Secretary “is currently at the Assistant Secretary-General level [but] may be upgraded to that of Under-Secretary-General,” according to the March 11 letter of the Secretary-General asking governments for nominations for the position, “depending on the outcome of a review to be undertaken by the Secretary-General of the structure of the UNFCCC secretariat.”


Selection Process:

Although the selection process was kept confidential by the Secretary-General’s office, and reliable information was difficult for stakeholders to find, the process seemed to include some important elements of an accountable, qualifications-based process. These included announced criteria and a clear timeline. In addition, the process was competitive.

The selection procedures are outlined below, followed by an analysis of the process’ integrity.

Qualifications and Call for Nominations

On March 11, the Secretariat circulated a call for nominations and position guidelines on the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, which highlighted criteria that a successful candidate would need to fill.

The Secretary-General’s letter requested missions to the UN to nominate candidates by March 31.

The criteria were:

  • Commitment to a global strategy to address climate change and its consequences through the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol;
  • Capacity to work with the President, the Bureau and the delegates of the COP, and the willingness to provide objective leadership when required;
  • Proven skills in management and the capacity to provide leadership to an autonomous secretariat of approximately 450 staff and a total expenditure of up to USD 100 million per year;
  • Vision, high professional standing and knowledge of the issues involved in the climate change and sustainable development spheres;
  • Ability to, and experience in collaborating actively with the UN Secretary-General, with heads and senior staff of UN system agencies, funds and programmes as well as of other international entities, the private sector, and civil society organizations;
  • Excellent communication and representational skills; and
  • Highest possible standards of integrity in professional and personal matters.


In response to Ban’s call, eleven countries nominated candidates, the UN reported on April 15. The UN declined to name any of the candidates or nominating countries, but several candidates were identified by their governments and other reports. They were:

Thompson is one of two candidates who gave a press briefing at the UN on her candidacy. The other was Christiana Figueres.

In a noon press conference at UN headquarters on April 15, the spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban, stated, “… it is standard practice, not just for this job but for any job – we do not reveal the names of candidates.”

He added that the appointment would “be made following a normal competitive process run by a selection committee and in consultation with the bureau of the UNFCCC.”

According to reports, the other candidates may have included Tony Blair (United Kingdom), Hassan Wirajuda (Indonesia), and Carlos Rufino Costa Posada (Colombia).

Shortlist and Interviews

Five candidates for the post were interviewed by the Secretary-General’s selection committee beginning in late April, according to reliable sources speaking to the UNelections Campaign. The interviewed candidates – also known as the shortlist – were:

  • Figueres,
  • Pasztor,
  • van Schalkwyk,
  • Sharma, and
  • Thompson.

The shortlist was notable for its geographic and gender balance, with two women and candidates from four UN regional groups.

The selection committee that reviews candidates and conducts interviews for a high-level appointment generally is made up of UN officials ranking as Assistant Secretaries-General (the level of the post being filled) or higher, and established and overseen by the office of Ban’s Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar.

Decision by Secretary-General

Following the interviews, the selection committee made recommendations to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was responsible for the final decision.

Ban’s decision to appoint Figueres reportedly was influenced or reinforced by the Alliance of Small Island States, known as AOSIS, which made a strong bid for Figueres, a candidate from a small developing country, over Marthinus van Schalkwyk, rumored to be the other leading candidate.

According to the Economic Times, Figueres’ candidature was strengthened by “the support she enjoys from many members of the [Alliance of Small Island States]”, or AOSIS, to which she is seen as a “strong ally.” For this reason, her appointment “is being viewed as part of an effort to reach out to small island states and less developed countries in a bid to rebuild the trust between nations.”

“Although [van Schalkwyk is] respected personally, small island states that feel threatened by climate change are understood to have resisted the appointment of someone from the BASIC bloc of countries” (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China), reports the BBC.

It also has been suggested that Figueres was selected because of her “great reputation of being a negotiator, a conciliator who brings people together,” and of “having a deep understanding of its processes and its outstanding issues.”

Another explanation for Ban’s decision is that he plans to appoint van Schalkwyk instead as Under-Secretary-General to lead the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). The appointment of its current head, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, expires this year after a five-year, non-renewable term that began April 20, 2005.

Approval by COP

UN officials presented Ban’s decision to a meeting of the UNFCCC COP Bureau on May 17. The Bureau reportedly gave Figueres’ nomination its unanimous support, which finalized the appointment.

Although it had been reported that Ban would consult with the COP in making the decision, it seems that the Bureau simply accepted his only recommendation in a largely ceremonious procedure.

Reuters reported that Figueres was “Ban’s only recommendation” to succeed de Boer, and that it was “just a courtesy” to present it to the Bureau.

Analysis of Process

Positive steps taken in this appointment process included the use of specific criteria in evaluating the candidates (“position guidelines”), and the public listing of those criteria. These correspond to two elements repeatedly called for by the UNelections Campaign – formal candidate qualifications and an official timeline and systematic reporting.

In addition, the fact that eleven countries nominated individuals for the post contributed to ensuring that the Secretary-General could select someone highly qualified. Indeed, the WWF noted that the candidatures submitted included strong candidates, “particularly from developing countries.”

Another feature of high-level appointments called for by the UNelections Campaign is inclusion of geographic and gender considerations. The reported shortlist included at least one person from each of the UN’s regional groupings, with the exception of the Group of Western European and Other States (WEOG), and three of the candidates on the list were women.

The appointment of a woman is particularly welcomed in light of the recent creation by Ban Ki-moon of an Advisory Group on climate change financing that included 19 men and no women (a woman was added later), as well as the importance of women’s voices in climate change, which is known to disproportionately impact women.

Despite these positive steps, the process fell below international standards in its level of transparency following the call for nominations. Strict confidentiality was imposed by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson in speaking with the press and by senior officials in the Executive Office who managed the selection process. The names of candidates and the selection committee’s shortlist were kept confidential and obtained only informally.

As a result, reliable information was difficult for stakeholders to find.

Greater transparency at all stages would afford media, civil society, and all Member States the opportunity to research candidates and provide feedback to the Secretary-General. During his term as Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon has not employed the previous practice of circulating a shortlist for high-level appointments, instead insisting on the necessity of confidentiality and that, despite the record of previous Secretaries-General, it is “standard practice, not just for this job but for any job – we do not reveal the names of candidates.”

Overall, the competitive nature of the appointment, the selection of someone regarded as very well qualified for the position, and a woman from a small, developing country reflects relatively well on the Secretary-General’s appointment process this time. Steps toward greater transparency would bring his future appointment processes closer into line with international standards.



Below are excerpts from various stakeholders’ reactions to the appointment of Figueres to lead the UNFCCC.

  • · NGOs

o       Greenpeace:

§         Costa Rica’s goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021 is “the type of attitude we need on the global stage.”

§         Having observed Figueres in several negotiations, she “seems to be a person who has courage and ambition.”

o        WWF:

§         Figueres “promises to be an inspiring leader who can keep a high level political dialogue going in order to secure the first critical elements of a climate treaty in Cancún, Mexico in December,”

§         She “will bring forward her experience with government, business, and civil society and at the same time the perspective of a developing country government. Her background should allow her to foster trust between countries and to push for an ambitious climate deal.”

§         “We are convinced that Ms. Figueres will maintain an open door policy and engage widely with civil society,”

o Pew Center on Global Climate Change

§         Through her many years of participation and leadership in the multilateral climate process, Ms. Figueres has demonstrated the expertise and commitment needed to lead the UNFCCC at this critical stage. She understands the issues, the history, and the many interests at play. These assets will be essential as she works with parties to strengthen confidence in the UNFCCC process, set realistic expectations going forward, and facilitate practical progress.”

o        Women’s Views on News:

§         “Seeing as climate change disproportionately affects women – as do natural disasters – the election of Christiana Figueres is particularly heartening. Figueres has an impressive background in UN climate change work and is thought not only to have a profound understanding of the issue, but also extensive experience of dealing with the bureaucratic processes of the UN. This could make her more likely to effect change.”

Member States:

  • US: Figueres is “well-qualified with a deep background in UN climate change negotiations.”
  • China: Welcomed the appointment of a candidate from a developing country. “Climate change issues are closely related to world development, especially the development of poor countries.”
  • Denmark: Figueres is “highly experienced, she is well connected, she knows all the negotiators. She knows the dossiers.”
  • Japan: “As one of her co-chairs in the [CDM group in December], I know for sure that [Figueres] will lead us in a balanced and transparent manner. I have a great confidence in her leadership and would like to provide her, the secretariat, and the negotiation process with all necessary support.”

Private sector:

  • IDEAcarbon (owns the Carbon Rating Agency):
    • Is “honoured and delighted that such a highly regarded and experienced figure has been appointed to this important post and we welcome her appointment wholeheartedly. We feel that this can herald a new impetus to the international negotiations to secure a new global deal for climate change, as Ms. Figueres understands what is required to get the sector participants fully engaged and how financial flows can make a difference in mitigation, adaptation and market mechanisms.”
    • “Christiana Figueres’ background in finance makes her an excellent choice to shepherd the UNFCCC towards a global climate deal, with an integral role that the carbon markets can play in achieving its objectives. She is widely seen as a negotiator who is able to bring complex issues between parties to a common approach.”

o        “We’re delighted that someone with such a background in the process of the negotiations and with such respect among parties and observers, including the private sector, has been given the job.”

o        She needs to “restore the world’s confidence in the international negotiating process after the low point of Copenhagen and she needs to find a way to bring private sector stakeholders and economic stakeholders in the public sector, such as finance ministries, into the heart of the process.”

o        “She’s always been willing to listen to business and has taken time to understand what business is saying.”

o        “Christiana has been involved in the climate change negotiations since the early days of the UNFCCC and, having worked in the public, private and NGO sectors, she perfectly combines diplomatic skills with a great mix of expertise, in particular on market-based instruments and regulatory issues…. Her intelligence, eloquence, determination, responsiveness and gentleness is outstanding – but the way she is approachable by stakeholders at all levels and builds trust amongst them is unique and this is exactly what is needed within the UNFCCC process.”

  • Business Green (Editorial)
    • “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.”
    • “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.”
    • “…She clearly genuinely and passionately cares about the urgent need to combat climate change.”

Finally, Yvo de Boer commented, “I have known Christiana Figueres for many years and can testify to her deep commitment and work to establish the robust and effective international climate regime that is the only way for all nations to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. She is familiar with the different interests a successful outcome of negotiations must address and can help stakeholders to find common ground. I wish her every success.”

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