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.
NATO is facing "the most severe crisis in the security environment in Europe since the end of the Cold War and perhaps ever," warn two former US ambassadors to the alliance.
Cities are critical both to understanding our future and to solving the shared problems facing humanity, from climate change and violence to health challenges and inequality.
Futurist Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and NYU professor, takes a minute to answer questions about artificial intelligence and whether its advancement is in the long-term interest of humanity.
As cities grow in size and power, and as technology and globalization further lower the cost of connecting across distances, local governments are increasingly shaping their own diplomatic agendas independent from national governments.
City governments now represent more people than at any other time in history, and local leaders are increasingly taking center stage in global affairs.
President Trump has just ended tariffs that had been levied on Canada last year in the name of national security. But where do US-Canada relations go from here?
It's been a full year since President Trump ended US participation in the Iran nuclear deal, but in just the last few days, tensions between Tehran and Washington have ramped up considerably.
The spread of internet-connected smartphones in India is upending everything from jobs and marriage to politics and education.
Derek Scissors, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, takes a minute to answer questions about the economies of China, India, and the United States.
The Council's Daniel Drezner joins the latest Deep Dish podcast to discuss how trade disputes could spark World War III and why US grand strategy is more or less dead.
Council President Ivo Daalder answers a question about which factors could lead China and the United States into a full-scale military conflict.
One of the newest and most ambitious approaches to combating climate change seeks to eliminate the concept of waste. It's known as the circular economy.
Machines are thinking and acting more like human. But that is only half the story. Artificial Intelligence is also changing what it means to be human.
In this episode, Former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan takes a minute to explain what bananas reveal about markets and governments, the importance of communities in economics, and whether China or India has a more enviable economy.
Warming ties between Iraq and Iran, and souring ties between the United States and both, raise the question: Did Iran come out as the real winner of the Iraq war?