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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon yesterday appointed Christiana Figueres (currently a senior climate negotiator for Costa Rica), to replace Yvo de Boer at the helm of the UN’s climate secretariat (UNFCCC).

It is a hopeful sign that the UN has settled on a policy maker from Costa Rica, a country that has received accolades for its ambitious plan to become carbon-neutral by 2021.

Ms. Figueres certainly has her work cut out for her.

Christiana FigueresThe Copenhagen conference failed to agree ambitious climate action, and the negotiations remain bogged down. At the same time, action to limit climate change – and an international agreement to bolster it – is more urgent than ever. If any reminder was needed, NASA recently announced that the first four months of 2010 have been the hottest, globally, in the 131-year record. The negotiations are, of course, country-driven, and the influence of the UNFCCC chief is limited. Yet, UNFCCC acts as Secretariat, is a key facilitator, and provides the umbrella structure for different funding mechanisms.

Here are some issues on which Ms. Figueres’s leadership will matter:

  • Work with Mexico, the host country of the next climate summit, to revive the negotiation process. The weak Copenhagen outcome has left many disaffected with the UN negotiating process. Negotiations in smaller venues, whether the G-20, the Major Economies Forum, or informal discussions, are less unwieldy, and less prone to tired political posturing. However, developing countries insist they ultimately consider a UN agreement the benchmark of legitimacy, and complained bitterly over their perceived exclusion from core negotiations on the Copenhagen Accord. Overcoming the crippling distrust between wealthy countries, large developing-country emitters, and poor countries, requires a delicate balance: use small groups to forge progress, but bring UN backing along for legitimacy. Both avenues to build consensus matter in tackling the tough questions that remain on the table: who will deepen emissions cuts to bring the world on track to two degrees; who will fund the bill; and what role will markets play?
  • Nail down progress achieved at Copenhagen. Copenhagen, for all its flaws, yielded important progress in some areas, including new funding pledges, and transparency on action to reduce emissions. But the agreement has no legal status, and there is a risk that countries may pull back from concessions they have made. The international community must now prod large developing-country emitters into giving substance to their transparency commitments. It must challenge rich countries to be transparent about their funding pledges, and to abstain from any effort to re-brand development assistance funds that were already budgeted as climate funding. (Their commitment was for new and additional funds. They must now honor it, to avoid further undermining trust.)
  • Clinch agreement on less controversial issues to build momentum. Generating some momentum is essential. The Copenhagen negotiations were a disappointment to many, and lingering uncertainty over U.S. climate action is bound to overshadow the negotiations this year. Real progress must be on the top of the agenda, to start curbing climate change, and to keep the process moving forward. There is a golden opportunity to build momentum for cooperation by agreeing to joint action on adaptation, on investing the ‘fast-start’ funding agreed at Copenhagen, and on reducing forest emissions. On forests, in particular, there is tremendous goodwill. A group of donors has pledged $3.5billion since Copenhagen, with new pledges coming in. <> And through the leadership of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, forest countries have made a serious effort to get ready to use support effectively.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.