20 february 2016

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres to step down

By Andrew Freedman, Mashables, February 20, 2016

United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres has announced she will step down from her position in July, ending a six-year run that culminated in the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement in December.

The Paris deal marked the first time that all countries — including the richest and poorest nations — agreed to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

As head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Figueres played a major role in facilitating the multi-year process that led up to the Paris negotiations, and also helped oversee the Paris talks as well.

Figueres' departure at the end of her term, which was announced in a letter to all the parties to the UNFCCC, means that the two main driving forces behind the Paris talks are both leaving as the agreement moves into a risky implementation phase.

That phase will formally begin with the next round of climate talks in Morocco in November. While countries pledged to cut emissions, boost production of renewable energy and other measures, fulfilling the pledges will require sufficient peer pressure, since the agreement has no enforcement mechanism.

The other official, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, recently stepped down from his post as part of a government reshuffle.

Already, this period has been more complicated than initially expected after the Supreme Court temporarily halted President Obama's Clean Power Plan to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The Clean Power Plan is essential to meeting the U.S. commitments enshrined in the Paris agreement, which is to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. (The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia means that it is more likely the court will ultimately uphold the plan.)

If the U.S. were to fail to meet its targets, then rising emitters like China and India may feel less compelled to rein in their pollution as well.

Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, praised Figueres' service.

“Christiana is one of the great leaders of our time. She no doubt has much more to contribute in the coming years. The challenge for everyone is to build on her achievements, and I am sure she will be part of that," he said in a statement.

Figueres began her tenure just six months after the failed round of climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, at a time when many leaders were questioning the viability of the U.N. climate negotiating process.

The mood in the wake of Copenhagen was so dismal that Figueres herself called the prospects of a truly global climate agreement impossible in her lifetime.

“No one believed that a global warming agreement could ever be possible. Neither did I,” she said in a Ted talk in Vancouver this week.

However, Figueres became determined to transform the impossible into reality. "Impossible is not a fact, it's an attitude," she said.

The next leader of the UNFCCC will have a different title, since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has agreed to elevate the role within the bureaucracy to that of an undersecretary general.

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