Christiana Figueres has led the UN’s climate body for five turbulent years – and finally the diminutive Costa Rican has a global deal in her sights
By Ed King
In just over a month, at a bleak airport in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, the future of the world may be decided at a UN climate change conference.
Nearly 200 countries are working on a plan to collectively start weaning themselves off fossil fuels: lifeblood of the global economy, cause of global warming.
If they succeed then by 2100 the burning of oil, coal and gas at scale will likely be history. Countries will rely on wind, solar, nuclear for energy, along with technologies as yet unheard of.
Keep an eye on the main stage if and when a deal is agreed. As president of the COP21 summit, France’s polished foreign minister Laurent Fabius will be soaking up the applause.
Look for the smaller woman on his right. If recent years are anything to go by, she’ll be wearing a short, bright jacket. She’ll be clapping, smiling and probably crying.
That’s Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate official, the 59-year old daughter of a Costa Rican president and the person credited with keeping global climate negotiations on course since 2010.
UN discussions on slashing greenhouse gas emissions have run since 1992, yet repeated efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels have failed.
The last time the world tried to deliver a universal pact to tackle climate change ended miserably in the snows of Copenhagen six years ago.
Rich developed countries refused to accept any tough emission targets, as did the fast-growing emerging economies of India, China and Brazil.
The conclusion left many observers questioning the effectiveness of a UN process that had effectively collapsed in the face of fierce criticism from all corners.
When she replaced Dutch official Yvo de Boer as UN climate chief in early 2010, months after Copenhagen, Figueres found herself in a diplomatic maelstrom.
“She inherited a process on a knife edge. The morale and the reputation of the Secretariat were at rock bottom,” says the former head of an EU delegation.
The fear of implosion was evident in her first speech as UN climate chief, on 2 August 2010. Citing Christopher Columbus and Nelson Mandela, she appealed to envoys for trust.
“We must progress in the full knowledge that we cannot cross the ocean on a single gust of wind. But, if we don’t raise the sails higher now, we may never discover a safer, more stable world,” she said.
Figueres is small – just over five foot – but walks tall with the confidence of someone born into leadership.
Her father served as Costa Rican president three times between 1948 and 1974, famously disbanding the country’s armed forces. Her brother was president from 1994 to 1998.
It’s a background that would leave many with a sense of superiority, yet officials who have worked with her claim that’s not the case.
She is, they say, as happy dealing with heads of state as sitting cross legged on the floor chatting with youth groups.
On the days when she’s at the UN climate body’s HQ, colleagues say she eats in the canteen, chewing the fat with some of the 400 staff based in the former West German capital Bonn.
When 20 of them recently lost their jobs due to budget cuts she was, says one source, in tears.
Crucially, Figueres is the first UN climate chief to come from a developing country, an important factor in a process where poorer nations often feel marginalised.
“She is natural connector. She can make the case with G77 [group of 134 developing countries] but also with developed countries,” says Monica Araya, a former Costa Rica diplomat now running the Nivela think tank.
Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist and veteran observer of the talks, agrees: “Personalities matter in this process more than most people think. A single person can get a lot done.”
— Christiana Figueres (@CFigueres) November 4, 2015
A keen half-marathon runner, Figueres took her closest aides on morning power walks around Poland’s international football stadium during the 2013 UN climate summit.
Her energy impresses many observers, but the reality is that the role of UN climate chief demands strong leadership and extensive travel.
The past year has seen her traverse the globe, cementing support for a global deal among natural supports and also visiting those opposed, notably in Australia and Saudi Arabia.
“I felt it to be an extremely lonely role,” says Yvo de Boer, Figueres’ predecessor and the man who witnessed at close hand the potential for global diplomacy to go belly up.
“Getting beaten up is par for the course, whatever one’s aspirations,” says Michael Zammit Cutajar, who led the secretariat from 1992 to 2002.
Figueres walks a delicate line. The UN is a player in this process, but it can’t be seen to directly influence the outcome of talks.
She rarely criticises countries, although once told this reporter she hoped certain members of the US Republican party could learn physics, a reference to the proliferation of climate sceptics in DC.
Instead she has opted for a relentlessly positive approach, even when repeatedly confronted with the prospect of collapsing negotiations.
At times this can grate with reporters, eager for a dash of realism when negotiations are evidently struggling, but she rarely strays from the message that low carbon growth is inevitable.
“She has made a point of becoming a ‘yes we can’ messenger… the narrative she has chosen for her work is empowering,” says Araya.
Still, positivity can only get you so far. As the 2015 Paris climate summit nears Figueres, who keeps a blue marble in her pocket to remind her of the oceans, faces her greatest test yet.
Over 80 world leaders including Barack Obama, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi will attend the opening day of the Paris meet to announce their support for a global pact.
Bilateral agreements between the US and China, France and China, the EU and China offer many hope that the world’s largest carbon polluters are on message.
But as a bitter recent round of talks in Bonn demonstrated, tensions are simmering beneath the surface.
“The closer you get to a deal, the higher the chance of a conflict of interest,” warns de Boer, speaking from his 2009 experience.
And in a process often viewed as a zero-sum-game, Figueres is the one player all should be able to trust.
In the final few days of talks her team will be working till 3am, up again at 7, constantly meeting delegations, searching for landing zones.
Figueres is not the only pilot of this process, but she has a stronger hold on the joystick than anyone else.
Officials who know these talks inside out say that when the time comes in Paris she alone will make the call when to land – leaving the credit to Fabius.
“The main role of the executive secretary is to help the French presidency gain an understanding of how far it can push the envelope… in understanding how the interests of different people can be met across different elements of the agreement,” de Boer adds.
The Executive Secretary must be “an island of calm authority as the storms swirl around you,” says another former senior diplomat.
“There will always be moments of crisis and panic. Take Cancun, Durban, Doha, Warsaw, Lima. Not one of these has ended on time. There are always murmurs that the talks are close to collapse.”
One key quality Figueres possesses, says Araya, is an ability to empathise with all sides, no matter if she personally disagrees with their viewpoint.
“The UN has often big dramas, and she is effective and firm at not amplifying these situations,” she says.
“I have never seen her collapsing or becoming completely cut up and in these tense moments it’s critical to see someone who is in charge.
“As a woman I think it is super important to see another woman leading this knowing it is very demanding… you have to deal with the parties, press… financing issues. Seeing her cope is inspiring.”
Tough at the top
That leadership means – at times – Figueres has made tough choices, suggesting a pragmatic core lurks beneath an often idealistic public image.
Telling UN secretariat staff in 2012 their days of business class flights were over kicked up a stink among some colleagues.
But that’s nothing like her decision to address coal industry leaders on the sidelines of the 2013 UN climate summit.
Youth and green groups that previously counted her as an ally were outraged, one labelling it an “exercise in greenwashing… legitimising the coal industry.”
Figueres was unapologetic, and repeated her strategy of reaching out to leading polluters in an exchange of letters with top oil and gas producers this year.
“I have no doubt that the oil and gas sector has an important and urgent role to play through an orderly transition to low carbon forms of energy,” she wrote, urging its leaders to come on board.
Separately, she also urged green groups to stop “demonising” fossil fuel producers, calling for a pan-energy alliance to develop green energy.
Similar appeals to business leaders in other sectors, along with fund managers and bankers – not groups popular with climate campaigners – have marked her tenure in office.
It’s a strategy that is paying dividends, according to Sandrine Dixson-Declève, head of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, which includes Unilever, 3M, BT and EDF.
Paris will be a moment, she contends, when business leaders feel they are part of the wider climate process, with many submitting their commitments to the UN’s NAZCA portal, launched last December.
“We have both her enthusiasm and desire to engage different businesses and also make them accountable,” she says. “It’s to better understand where they are coming from and have a proper dialogue about how business can make a transition.”
A final charge?
An image persists of Figueres, for those at the 2011 UN climate summit in Durban.
It was late at the NGO party – held on the middle weekend of the two-week conference – and the official tasked with keeping the talks on course was busy dancing on the beach.
That was a moment when many climate campaigners said they believed in her in a way they could never have done with previous chiefs of the UN process, however capable.
Perhaps she was simply relaxing with her family, but for that moment it seemed that she was at one with climate activists.
Emotional detachment is not a charge you could level at this mother of two, who is known to well up when contemplating the future she will leave her children and grandchildren.
Tears have spilled on more than one occasion. Some cynics (often journalists) wonder if she has a secret reservoir stashed in her coat. But UN and diplomatic colleagues insist they are real.
Her passion perhaps explains why so few of those engaged with the UN climate talks are willing to criticise her outright, even if a new, pragmatic policy of cross-sector engagement has angered some.
“I just feel that it is so completely unfair and immoral what we are doing to future generations, we are condemning them before they are even born,” she said in a memorable address to the Chatham House conference in 2013.
“We have a choice about it, that’s the point, we have a choice. If it were inevitable then so be it, but we have a choice to change the future we are going to give our children.”