U.N. picks Costa Rican Figueres as new climate chief

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations appointed Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica on Monday to be its climate chief to head stalled international talks on how to contain the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Figueres, 53, the choice of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is the first leader of the U.N. climate change secretariat to come from a developing country. She will take over from Dutchman Yvo de Boer from July 1.

She beat fellow short-listed candidate Marthinus van Schalkwyk, a former South African environment minister, for a position meant to rally global accord on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol after a disappointing summit in Copenhagen last December.

Announcing the appointment, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Figueres “brings to this position a passion for the issue, deep knowledge of the stakeholders and valuable hands-on experience with the public sector, non-profit sector and private sector.”

The scale of Figueres’ task is underscored by a Copenhagen summit where 120 world leaders failed to reach a binding deal, pledging instead to mobilize $30 billion from 2010-2012 to help poor countries deal with droughts and floods, and to try to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

This year, negotiators have agreed little except to hold two extra sessions in the run-up to a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, that begins in late November.

Many policymakers expect the Mexico meeting to fall short of a binding deal, looking to 2011 for agreement on a successor to Kyoto, whose provisions expire in 2012.

Some analysts are doubtful of any new formal, binding pact beyond Kyoto, expecting instead a patchwork of national targets and schemes.


In an interview with Reuters after her appointment, Figueres said the world can salvage a new deal to combat global warming but this was not a priority for 2010. Rich countries must first fulfill their pledges on climate aid, she said.

“Parties need to prove to themselves that issues already on the table, such as fast-tracking financing, that’s not just on paper but can also be delivered. That’s the focus of Cancun,” she said.

The appointment of a U.N. climate chief from the South was widely forecast after a rich-poor rift in Copenhagen, where developing countries said the industrialized world was shirking its historical responsibility for causing climate change.

Figueres has been a member of the Costa Rican climate negotiating team since 1995 and has held many senior posts in the U.N. climate process. Her father, Jose Figueres Ferrer, was president of Costa Rica three times.

Danish Climate and Energy Minister Lykke Friis said Figueres won unanimous support on Monday from key nations at a meeting of the U.N. climate bureau in Bonn, Germany.

“She is highly experienced, she is well connected, she knows all the negotiators. She knows the dossiers,” Friis said.

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern called her “well qualified.”

One source close to the matter said: “If they wanted a technical bureaucrat, she’s probably as good as you’ll get.”

Business and those involved in the carbon market would welcome Figueres, said Andrei Marcu, head of regulatory and policy affairs at oil trading firm Mercuria. “From a business point of view, she has been willing to listen in the past and we hope she will continue to do so,” he said.

Figueres has chaired talks to increase transparency in the global carbon offset market under Kyoto, which delivers about $6.5 billion finance annually to help developing countries cut greenhouse gas emissions.

One source said the small island developing states -- among those most at risk from climate change -- argued strongly for Figueres, saying they wanted someone from a smaller nation.

Costa Rica has one of the world’s most environmentally friendly policies, including a strong focus on ecotourism and a long-term goal of becoming “carbon neutral,” under which industrial emissions would be soaked up by forests.

Additional reporting by David Fogarty in Singapore, Alister Doyle in Oslo and Gerard Wynn in London; Editing by John O’Callaghan