Highlights of COP-20: Christina Figueres

One of the shining stars of COP-20 is the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica. Ms. Figueres is far from the stereotype of a stuffy bureaucrat; on the contrary, she has a familiar way of connecting with various constituents and ensuring that the UNFCCC process with all its quirks is as accessible as possible.

This week, I was fortunate to attend several events where Ms. Figueres spoke. Among them was an informal “fireside chat” with business community representatives. Indicative of Ms. Figueres’ informality, she reorganized the room so that everyone could hear, perching herself on the desk and inviting people onto the floor around her. At this talk, Ms. Figueres spoke about the role of market mechanisms in international climate action, and their relationship with non-market mechanisms. Ms. Figueres’ view was that there are various layers to market mechanisms; “market” does not mean only the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). At the same time, the various market approaches (CDM, Joint Implementation, New Market Mechanisms, Framework for Various Approaches) should eventually merge into one stream, as it is difficult for parties and particularly for the business community to stay on top of the current, fragmented approach.

Yesterday, on Day 5 of COP-20, Ms. Figueres addressed all the observing constituents of the UNFCCC, which includes everyone except governments and the press. At this briefing, Ms. Figueres gave an update of where various negotiations stand. She emphasized that the optimism, sense of excitement and dedication with which everyone arrived has upheld throughout the week, despite the inevitable challenges along the way. On the most important, and, in Ms. Figueres’ words, “sexy” topic of the Ad Hoc Working Group of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), Ms. Figueres was also optimistic. There are two texts being moved forward under ADP, with very different end goals and methodologies. The first text is the so-called omnibus decision, which includes a decision on intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). This decision needs to be completed in Lima and adopted by ADP. The other text is the document that will eventually become a decision in Paris. At the moment, it is a “co-chairs non-paper”, which is very low on the legal totem pole of documents; indeed, it is not even a paper at this stage. Ms. Figueres expressed a hope that the status of the paper will be elevated in the coming week, although in any case, the document will remain a draft. When asked to comment how she feels the parties may proceed on the document, Ms. Figueres described two possible ways of advancing. One way would be to work further on fully capturing all the views of the parties, as some parties feel that so far, the facilitators have not quite accurately described the different perspectives of all parties. The other way would be to make the document more clearly a co-chairs paper, which parties could then work on to make their own. Whichever way is chosen, Ms. Figueres emphasized that the political capital that will be present in Lima as ministers and heads of state arrive in the second week of COP should be focused on the ADP process.

This COP will also see some innovations in its second week, including high-level dialogues on finance and on ADP. These dialogues will include governments as well as city representatives, financial institutions, and non-governmental organizations. Ms. Figueres saw these dialogues as one of the ways that there has been a change in atmosphere at this COP, where non-government bodies are seen as important participants in the process, and not just watchdogs or outsiders. As a first-timer at this COP, it is hard to say whether this is a real change from previous COPs, but Ms. Figueres at least makes a strong effort to make it so.


Laura Sundblad graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2014. She currently works in New York in the field of access to clean energy and is a CUCSD COP-20 Delegation Member.