UN climate chief Christiana Figueres to step down: A legacy of bridging divides

Christiana Figueres's ability to bring opposing sides together has been a hallmark of her six-term tenure as the UN climate chief.

Christophe Ena/AP/File
United Nations climate chief, Christiana Figueres, listens during a news conference at the COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Dec. 2, 2015. Ms. Figueres said Friday she will leave her post in July after six years in charge of the diplomatic effort to fight global warming. The Costa Rican diplomat’s announcement comes two months after a historic international agreement on climate change was adopted in Paris.

Christina Figueres, the tireless shepherd behind last year's landmark climate agreement forged in Paris, is stepping down after six terms as the United Nations' climate chief.

Ms. Figueres took her current post in 2010, after a climate summit in Copenhagen failed to produce legally binding action on climate change, devolving instead into an argument between developed and developing nations.

The UN’s top climate official has accomplished much in her six terms in office, from building bridges with the coal and oil industries to holding forth with heads of state. Figueres came to her post from a career as a climate negotiator in Costa Rica, and she used her understanding of how policy works at the national and local levels to bring about change. She has also done much to unite people of all backgrounds on the climate issue.

"[She has an] outstanding ability to see where we need to go as a world and to bring people together," Nicholas Stern, of the London School of Economics, told Reuters.

Before the Paris climate talks in December, Figueres appeared at a Christian Science Monitor-hosted event to stress that the proposed global climate change plans were not enough to lower global warming levels to the recommended level of 2 degrees Celsius, but they were an important step in the right direction.

“[T]hose 157 national climate change plans do not constitute enough emissions reductions to put us onto the path of 2 degrees … what they do do is get us off of the business-as-usual trajectory that we were on just four or five years ago to a temperature increase of 4 or 5 degrees, and by some estimates, even 6 degrees,” she said.

In a letter to governments on Friday, Figueres reiterated that same sentiment, acknowledging that while the world has come a long way, there is still much farther to go.

"We now move into a phase of urgent implementation," she wrote. “The journey that lies ahead will require continued determination, ingenuity and, above all, our collective sense of humanity and purpose."

Figueres is not the only climate official at the UN who is stepping down. Héla Cheikhrouhou, head of the UN's Green Climate Fund, also announced on Friday that she would be leaving her position in September, after a three-year term. The Climate Fund, which seeks to fund issues related to climate change, has faced some delays in attracting pledges.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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