Should new UN climate chief come from developing nation?

Some climate policy analysts say that developing nations – some of which have become role models in cutting their planet-warming emissions and adapting to climate impacts – could help fill the void in leadership left behind by Christiana Figueres' departure in July.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters/File
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (c.) arrives between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (r.) and Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer of Unilever during the session 'The New Climate and Development Imperative' during the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 21.

The hunt is on for a new United Nation's climate chief after Christiana Figueres announced last week she would step down in July – and at least one leading expert is suggesting that the UN look to Africa for a replacement.

The next executive secretary of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) should come from one of the world's poorest countries, said Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

“It’s time for the least developed countries to have a chance at that particular slot,” Mr. Huq told the Thompson Reuters Foundation, adding that poorer nations have played a significant role in shaping the global strategy to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the landmark deal forged in Paris last fall. Representatives from developing nations brought a vital perspective to the table at that conference, insisting that global leaders consider and help to address the plight of people bearing the heaviest burdens of climate change, such as those residing on island states that are becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels.

Huq suggested Gambia’s environment minister, Pa Ousman Jarju, or Malian scientist and former director of the African Climate Policy Center, Youba Sokono as candidates for the position. Either would be well positioned to negotiate potential challenges of coordinating action between developing and developed nations.

Climate scientists and policy makers anticipate a lot of hiccups in turning the new agreement into genuine action. The biggest concern they are grappling with is whether the "bottom-up" plan – built around each country's pledges to reduce their emissions and help poorer countries adjust to climate shifts – will add up to enough emissions cuts.

"Will countries actually race to the top, or will they race to the bottom?" asks Achala Abeysinghe, a legal adviser on climate issues for the least developed countries and a governance expert with the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. "If they race to the bottom, we are in big trouble,” she told Reuters.

The challenge will be finding a way to push countries to stick to ambitious commitments without making penalties for failure so tough that politicians are reluctant to ratify the agreement.

"If you go too punitive, there's a risk countries will put forward the lowest common denominator because they don't want to be sanctioned," Ms. Abeysinghe added.

Upcoming transitions in key leadership further complicate the equation, following resignations from top officials including, Hela Cheikhrouhou of Green Climate Fund; Laurent Fabius, France’s former foreign minister who helped a lot with the talks in Paris; and now Ms. Figueres who will be stepping down by July.

Still, Huq and Abeysinghe are hopeful that developing nations – some of whom have become role models in cutting their planet-warming emissions and adapting to climate impacts – could help to fill the void left in leadership.

This report contains materials from Reuters.

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