On Friday, February 19, Christiana Figueres announced that she will step down as head of the Bonn-based UN Climate Change Secretariat. The position is a strategic one for climate governance and, by extension, environmental sustainability, economic vitality, and political inclusion. In the wake of Ms. Figueres’ departure, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will seek to appoint a leader who can bring together the wherewithal and innovation necessary to move toward a climate-stable future, and he should consider appointing a mayor or former mayor to lead the way.
Appointing a mayor to head the secretariat would be a change of strategies for the United Nations, which has previously drawn upon leaders with experience negotiating international accords. Before joining the secretariat, Figueres led the Costa Rican negotiating team and amassed considerable experience with the various offices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. After her appointment to the position in 2010, Figueres led UN efforts to recover from the seemingly intractable North-South tensions that had previously stalled multilateral negotiations. After six years of Figueres’ leadership, the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), held in Paris late last year, came to a potentially path-breaking agreement based in part upon unprecedented collaboration between wealthy and poor nations and an emphasis on bringing to the negotiating table the good work already underway within the borders of each country.
Sustaining the momentum generated in Paris may require a shift in emphasis—a move from negotiation to implementation—and a new kind of leadership. It is true that the Paris meetings ended on perhaps the highest note since COP3, which saw the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, but that parallel should give us pause. The Kyoto Protocol has been nothing short of a political and technical disaster in its failure either to bring nations together or to move the world toward a climate-stable future. So while negotiators and pundits alike may be relatively sanguine about the Paris agreement, everyone remains rightfully wary of premature celebration. The devil will be in the details. As Figueres wrote in the letter announcing her resignation, “We now move into a phase of urgent implementation. The journey that lies ahead will require continued determination, ingenuity and, above all, our collective sense of humanity and purpose.” Capitalizing on the momentum of the Paris agreement will require a renewed commitment to action. The next executive secretary—a post that is being elevated to the level of under secretary general—should be as familiar with implementation as they are with negotiation.
The UN should not overlook mayors, former mayors, and the heads of transnational municipal networks for climate governance—networks like the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme, or C40—in its efforts to identify the next head of the Climate Change Secretariat. Over the past twenty years, as nation-states have repeatedly failed in negotiating a climate accord and lagged in their implementation of climate-stabilizing policies, cities have taken a leading role in climate governance. Through land-use regulations, transportation policies, energy governance, and building codes, cities have demonstrated both the commitments and capabilities necessary to make a difference. Berlin, for example, plans to be climate neutral by 2050 and already reduced emissions by 27 percent between 1990 and 2010. By building transnational municipal networks, cities have been effective at reshaping practices and philosophies beyond their borders and at higher scales of governance. Indeed, without the good work of cities over the past 20 years, the COP21 negotiators might have fallen short, unable to highlight adequate progress made within their boundaries. Looking forward, without counting on cities, nation states may not be able to achieve what they’ve promised in Paris.
Cities, with their vulnerability to and responsibility for climate change, with their sensitivity to needs for both mitigation and adaptation, have become the source of wherewithal and innovation necessary to address global warming. Maybe they should also be the source for our next head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.
The University of Chicago's Robert Pape joins Deep Dish to help us understand the right—and wrong—ways to end the United States’ longest war.
Agriculture expert, Khalid Bomba, takes a minute to discuss the importance of agriculture to the economy of Ethiopia.
Georgetown University Political Scientist and Expert on Chinese Military and Security Policy, Oriana Skylar Mastro, takes a minute to discuss China's global influence and what this means for the US and its allies.
Global Cities and ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Samuel Kling, takes a minute to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on big cities and how cities can benefit from high density in a pandemic.
Over the last month, we talked to journalists around the world in a series of special edition Deep Dish episodes focused on how countries around the world are responding to COVID-19.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Bonnie Glaser and Lieutenant Commander Matthew Dalton, US Navy, join Deep Dish to examine China’s strategy and potential US policy options to ensure freedom of navigation remains intact.
Will President Maduro hold on to his power? The Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Camilleri and the International Crisis Group’s Ivan Briscoe join Deep Dish to discuss.
As life returns to normal for many Germans this week, The Wall Street Journal’s Bojan Pancevski joins Deep Dish from Berlin to examine Germany’s reopening strategy.
Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney and the German Marshall Fund’s Ariane Tabatabai join Deep Dish to examine the future of the US-Iran standoff.
Council senior fellow Roger Thurow takes a minute to discuss how COVID-19 has affected food security and brought attention to hunger amid the abundance in the United States.
For an organization devoted to advancing the connections between Chicago and the world, the arrival of pandemic coronavirus has been as jarring as it is surreal. But the Chicago Council is adjusting to a new way of working.
As New Zealand prepares to emerge from a national lockdown on April 27, Axios’ Rebecca Falconer joins Deep Dish from Auckland.
Geopolitical forecaster George Friedman joins Deep Dish to examine the institutional and socioeconomic cycles of upheaval that have rebuilt and reinvented American life in the past and explains why he’s still optimistic about the future.