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.
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As 2018 comes to a close, we invite you to look back at the most watched Council programs of 2018.
The Global Compact for Migration: International Cooperation Amidst a Nationalist Disinformation Campaign
This week, more than 160 countries gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. But in the process turned into an extremely divisive political issue due in part to a disinformation campaign.
A recent incident between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait may seem minor, but the stakes are real. If this action by Russia goes unpunished, it could pave the way for Russia to take more territory in eastern Ukraine to establish a land-bridge between Russia and Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed in 2014.
The war in Yemen has created one of the greatest unseen humanitarian tragedies in the world. It finally drew public attention after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which triggered a debate about US involvement in the war.
Trade wars, false missile warnings, "babble fish earbuds", and Germany's World Cup whimper: 2018 was a year that sometimes defined description, at least in words. But the numbers tell a story of their own, so here's a smattering of startling stats mentioned on the Council's stage in 2018. To view the full clip, click on the numbers! (These figures were stated by guest speakers and have not been verified by the Council)
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a "frozen conflict," but Russia recently seized three Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait to the Black Sea.
President George H.W. Bush reimagined the way the US government created and implemented its foreign policy, writes Council President Ivo Daalder in Foreign Affairs.
Illinois has had an outsize influence on the world, and on the occasion of the bicentennial it seems worthy of a recap.
"The European Union and United Kingdom have agreed to the terms of their divorce," writes Council President Ivo Daalder, as he outlines how May's deal might actually result in a second referendum to keep Britain in the European Union.
Now that EU leaders have accepted the Brexit deal, it's up to Parliament to decide what happens next. Rory Stewart and Sebastian Mallaby join Phil Levy to discuss.
A recent naval clash in the Sea of Azov has increased tensions between Ukraine and Russia. But what is Russian President Vladimir Putin's objective?
Nation-states need quickly to realize the potential of global cities, and take steps to empower them to meet the global challenges of the twenty-first century. They should allow them more fiscal autonomy and give them a louder, more influential voice in the deliberations of international organizations.
Cities, not nation-states, are the dominant unit of human organization in the twenty-first century. Humanity has shifted from a predominantly rural to urban species in a startlingly short period of time. The world today is stitched together by thousands of small, medium, and large cities—including 31 mega-cities, depending on how you define them—that are dramatically transforming our political, social, and economic relations. Yet, despite the centrality of cities in modern life and to resolving critical global challenges, our international affairs are still dominated by nation-states. This status quo is no longer acceptable.
US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a resounding failure, argues Stephen M. Walt in his new book “The Hell of Good Intentions.”
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit became a flashpoint in what's now the most significant great power clash since the end of the Cold War. “China and the United States hijacked the APEC spirit,” one diplomat said.