A surprise appointment at the UN

Reuters is reporting this morning that Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres is to succeed Yvo De Boer as the head of climate change at the United Nations. The news comes as something of a surprise. Former South African environment minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, a charismatic politician, had been considered favourite for the position. 

There are some solid reasons for Figueres’ appointment. She has been involved with the UN negotiations since 1995 and is credited with proposing useful reforms to the Clean Development Mechanism, which provides finance to developing countries to help them grow sustainably. She is competent and knows the institution inside out. As one official put it, "If they wanted a technical bureaucrat, she’s probably as good as you’ll get." 

It is also important that she represents a developing country not-aligned with the powerful BASIC – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – group of nations. After Copenhagen it is clear that divisions exist among developing countries. The industrial behemoths of the BASIC group play an increasingly assertive role in negotiations often at the expense of smaller countries that are already facing the realities of climate change. Figueres is from a small developing country and is respected by her peers within the institution. Van Schalkwyk is a representative of the BASIC group of nations.

However, it is fair to ask whether Figueres is the right woman for job at a moment when the UN process is facing unprecedented criticism. There is a real need to rebuild and reform in the wake of the failed Copenhagen summit. The negotiating process needs to be more streamlined and the sacred cows of the institution need to be challenged. The UN also needs someone strong enough to stand up to heads of state when necessary. We will have to wait and see whether Figueres is capable of doing this.