Christiana Figueres

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Christiana Figueres
Christiana Figueres in London - 2018 (39536174340) (cropped).jpg
Figueres in April 2018
Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
In office
1 July 2010 – 18 July 2016
Ban Ki-moon
Preceded byYvo de Boer
Succeeded byPatricia Espinosa
Personal details
Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen

(1956-08-07) 7 August 1956 (age 65)
San José, Costa Rica
Alma materSwarthmore College
London School of Economics
WebsiteOfficial website
External video
video icon Christiana Figueres: The case for stubborn optimism on climate, TED Talks, 2020
video icon Christiana Figueres: What I Really Care About, GOOD Magazine, 2020
video icon Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres says Australia needs to ditch coal, Matter Of Fact With Stan Grant, ABC News, 2018

Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen (born 7 August 1956) is a Costa Rican diplomat who has led national, international and multilateral policy negotiations. She was appointed Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in July 2010,[1][2] six months after the failed COP15 in Copenhagen.[3] During the next six years she worked to rebuild the global climate change negotiating process,[4] leading to the 2015 Paris Agreement, widely recognized as a historical achievement.[5]

Over the years Figueres has worked in the fields of climate change, sustainable development, energy, land use, and technical and financial cooperation. In 2016, she was Costa Rican candidate for the United Nations Secretary General[6] and was an early frontrunner, but decided to withdraw after garnering insufficient support.[7] She is a founder of the Global Optimism group[8] co-authored with Tom Rivett-Carnac of The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis[9] (2020), and co-host of the popular podcast Outrage and Optimism.[10]

Early life[edit]

Figueres was born in San José, Costa Rica. Her father, José Figueres Ferrer, was President of Costa Rica[11] three times. Figueres' mother, Karen Olsen Beck, served as Costa Rican Ambassador to Israel in 1982 and was a member of the Legislative Assembly from 1990 to 1994. The couple had four children. Figueres' older brother José Figueres Olsen, was also President of Costa Rica (1994–1998).[12]

Growing up in La Lucha, Figueres attended the local Cecilia Orlich grammar school. She moved to the German Humboldt Schule in the capital and later graduated from Lincoln High School. She travelled to England for a year of A Level studies before entering Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1979.[13] As part of her studies in anthropology, she lived in Bribri, Talamanca, a remote indigenous village in the Southeastern plateau of Costa Rica for one year.[14] She then went to the London School of Economics for a master's degree in social anthropology and graduated in 1981. Figueres' daughter Naima was born in Guatemala in March 1988, and daughter Yihana was born in Washington DC in December 1989.[15][16]

Early career[edit]

Figueres began her public service career as Minister Counselor at the Embassy of Costa Rica in Bonn, West Germany, from 1982 to 1985.[17]

Returning to Costa Rica in 1987, Figueres was named Director of International Cooperation in the Ministry of Planning.[18] There she designed and directed the negotiation of comprehensive financial and technical cooperation programs with eight European countries, and supervised the evaluation of all national technical and financial assistance requests. She served as the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Agriculture between 1988 and 1990.[19] She supervised the execution of 22 national programs involving training, credit and marketing.[20]

In 1989 Figueres moved with her husband to Washington DC, and for several years devoted herself to the upbringing of their two daughters. In 1994, Figueres re-entered professional life and became the Director of the Renewable Energy in the Americas (REIA) initiative, today housed at the Organization of American States (OAS).[21]

In 1995 Figueres founded and became the Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Development in the Americas, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the participation of Latin American countries in the Climate Change Convention.[22][18] She worked there as executive director for eight years.[23]

International negotiator[edit]

Representing the Government of Costa Rica, Christiana Figueres was a negotiator of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change 1995–2010.[19][24] In 1997 she provided critical international strategy for achieving developing country support and approval of the Kyoto Protocol and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). From 2007 to 2009 she was Vice President of the Bureau[25] of the Climate Convention, representing Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the years she chaired various international negotiations:[26]

  • Co-Chair of the Contact Group on Guidance to the CDM Executive Board: Nairobi, December 2006;[27] Poznan, December 2008; Copenhagen, December 2009.[28]
  • Co-Chair of the Contact Group on flexibility mechanisms for the post 2012 regime, Bonn in June 2008,[29] Accra, Ghana[30] in August 2008, and Poznan in December 2008.[28]
  • Member of the Friends of the Chair Group that negotiated the Bali Action Plan for long term cooperative action of all nations, Bali, Indonesia, December 2007.[31]

Programmatic Clean Development Mechanism[edit]

In 2002 Figueres proposed a "Sectoral CDM" under which developing countries would be encouraged to develop regional or sectoral projects that could be the result of specific sustainable development policies. In 2005 she published a study proposing "programmatic CDM" whereby emission reductions are achieved not by one single site, but rather by multiple actions executed over time as the result of a government measure or a voluntary program.[32][33][34]

In December 2005 Figueres took the idea to the COP11 in Montreal,[32][35] and achieved support for it on behalf of the Group of 77 and China. She then took the lead in negotiating the concept with the various groups of industrialized countries, finally attaining a Conference of the Parties (COP) decision to allow "programs of activities" in the CDM.[36][37] Two years later, as member of the CDM Executive Board, she achieved consensus on the rules and procedures for the submission of "programs of activities" in the CDM.[38][39][40]

Private sector[edit]

In 2008 and 2009 Figueres collaborated with private sector companies that aligned themselves with climate friendly goals. Figueres served as Senior Adviser to C-Quest Capital, a carbon finance company focusing on programmatic CDM investments.[41] She was the Principal Climate Change Advisor to ENDESA Latinoamérica, the largest private utility in Latin America with operations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru. She was also Vice Chair of the Rating Committee of the Carbon Rating Agency, the first entity to apply credit rating expertise to carbon assets.[42]

Non profit engagements[edit]

  • Vice President of the Bureau of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2008–2009.[26]
  • Board of Directors and Trustee, Winrock International. 2005–present. Chair of the Governance Committee and Member of the Executive Committee, 2007–?[43]
  • Board of Trustees of the Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Cordillera Volcánica Centrales [es] (FUNDECOR),[44] Costa Rican organization with an endowment of $15 million and which received the 2001 King Bauldwin Award. 1999–present
  • Board of Directors, International Institute for Energy Conservation, 2006–2008

Leading the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change[edit]

Following the failed COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen,[45][22] the UN Secretary General appointed Christiana Figueres as new Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, starting her first term in July 2010.[2] Upon starting the role, she advocated for a shift in strategy: moving from the top-down logic of the Kyoto Protocol to a bottom up logic based on national self interest in the context of scientific projections.[22]

During her tenure as Executive Secretary, she led the UN Climate Change Secretariat's delivery of six consecutive yearly global negotiation sessions, culminating in the historical Paris Agreement in December 2015.[46][47] Her engagement and close collaboration with yearly rotating presidencies (Mexico,[48] South Africa,[49] Qatar,[50] Poland,[51] Peru[52] and France[53]) provided the necessary framework and continuity that allowed every annual negotiation to build incrementally solid ground of common purpose.

Figueres with Ban Ki-Moon at the Cancun conference

Under the presidency of Patricia Espinosa (Mexico) COP16[54] in 2010 marked a radical departure from the previous conference in Copenhagen, delivering a comprehensive package infrastructure to assist developing nations including the Green Climate Fund, the UNFCCC Technology Mechanism,[55] and the Cancun Adaptation Framework.[56][57]

At COP17 held in Durban in December 2011,[58] governments committed for the first time to collectively develop a new universal climate change agreement by 2015 for the period beyond 2020.[59] Connie Hedegaard, the EU's top climate official, played a pivotal role to change the course of negotiations.[60]

The work toward that global legal framework was initiated at COP18 Doha in November 2012,[61] at the same time as the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was adopted under the Doha Amendment.[62] At COP19 in Warsaw in 2013[63] governments continued to work toward the global framework but also adopted a rulebook for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and a mechanism to address loss and damage caused by long-term climate change impacts. Gathering in Lima for COP20 at the end of 2014,[64] governments defined the core elements of the upcoming agreement, and agreed on the ground rules to submit national contributions in the run up to the 2015 negotiation.[60] From then on, Figueres' efforts were focused on raising the ambition of the emerging agreement to ensure that it would be science based and long lasting.

Paris Agreement[edit]

Adoption of the Paris agreement

COP21 held in Paris in December 2015 is widely recognized as a historic achievement.[65] With the leadership of the United Nations Secretary-General and President Hollande of France, and beating previous records of Head of State gatherings on one day, 155 Heads of State came together to send a strong political signal of support for an ambitious and effective agreement.[66] On the final day under the presidency of Laurent Fabius the 195 governments which are Parties to the Climate Change Convention unanimously adopted the Paris Agreement, with the goal of accelerating the intentional transformation of the global economy toward low carbon and high resilience.[67] Figueres and the French hosts had made sure the major negotiation obstacles were resolved before the start of the Agreement.[60]

Figueres spent much of her tenure approaching key stakeholders beyond governments by engaging technology providers, financial institutions including insurance companies,[68] the science community,[69] faith groups,[70] youth and women's groups,[71] and other members of society,[72] encouraging them to partake in the global efforts to address climate change. In 2013, she addressed the World Coal Association, commented that the coal industry faces business continuation risks, but inviting them to be a part of the global solution.[73]

Christiana Figueres completed her second term as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC on 6 July 2016.[74]

Post-UNFCCC career[edit]

Christiana Figueres at Stockholm Resilience Centre for Mission 2020

After her tenure as Executive Secretary, Figueres worked as convenor of Mission 2020[75] and served as chair of the Advisory Board of The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change.[76][77] She is a founder of the Global Optimism group,[8] co-author of the book The Future We Choose[9] and co-host of the popular podcast Outrage and Optimism.[10] Other activities include:

United Nations Secretary-General candidacy[edit]

On 7 July 2016, Christiana Figueres became the official Costa Rican candidate for the United Nations Secretary General.[6] She was an early frontrunner, but decided to withdraw in September after garnishing insufficient support in the third and fourth round of voting.[7]

During the UN Secretary General debate held by Al Jazeera, Christina Figuerres raised her hand when the candidates were all asked who thought victims of cholera deserved an apology.[90] The UN's role in the Haiti cholera outbreak has been widely discussed and criticized. The UN peacekeepers may have been the proximate cause for bringing cholera to Haiti.[91] Thirty-seven human rights organizations signed a UN Secretary General accountability pledge asking the candidates to take action on two human rights violations that have damaged the United Nations' image: failing to provide remedies for victims of cholera in Haiti, and sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers.[92] Despite her stance at the UNSG debates, her office declined to support the pledge."[93]

Awards and honours[edit]

Figueres has been awarded several honours and awards, including several honorary doctorates.

From governments[edit]

From civil society[edit]

Honorary doctorates[edit]


  • Co-author with Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis (Manilla Press, 2020) ISBN 9780525658351.[116][8]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ Dvorsky, George (7 January 2010). "Five simple reasons why the Copenhagen Climate Conference failed". Sentient Developments.
  4. ^ Parfitt, Ben (19 February 2016). "Nicholas Stern responds to news that Christiana Figueres will step down from UNFCCC role". Grantham Research Institute, London School of Economics.
  5. ^ Worland, Justin (12 December 2015). "World Approves Historic 'Paris Agreement' to Address Climate Change".
  6. ^ a b Harvey, Fiona (7 July 2016). "Christiana Figueres nominated for post of UN secretary general". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 10 August 2020.
  7. ^ a b "The battle for the UN's top job". Foreign Brief. 26 September 2016. Retrieved 10 August 2020.
  8. ^ a b c Carrington, Damian (15 February 2020). "Christiana Figueres on the climate emergency: 'This is the decade and we are the generation'". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 16 August 2020.
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  10. ^ a b
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  12. ^ Germani, Clara (21 September 2014). "Climate change summitry's force of nature: Christiana Figueres". The Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
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  69. ^ Maza, Cristina (3 November 2015). "UN climate chief: Global warming above 2 °C is not an option". The Christian Science Monitor.
  70. ^ Hafiz, Yasmine (8 May 2014). "UN Climate Head Christiana Figueres Urges Religious Leaders To Call For Fossil Fuel Divestment". The Huffington Post.
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  80. ^ Christiana Figueres Joins Impossible Foods' Board of Directors Impossible Foods, press release of January 15, 2021.
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  85. ^ Eni's Board of Directors establishes an Advisory Board of international energy experts Eni, press release of July 28, 2017.
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  87. ^ Sustainability and Legacy Commission International Olympic Committee (IOC).
  88. ^ Board of Directors World Resources Institute (WRI).
  89. ^ Christiana Figueres Inter-American Dialogue.
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  91. ^ "Waters & 100 Members of Congress Urge United Nations to Fulfill its Obligation to Support Victims of the Cholera Epidemic in Haiti". Institute for Justice & Democracy In Haiti. 15 June 2018. Retrieved 1 July 2016.
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  111. ^ "Warwick honours space plane designer, climate change policy maker and a man who manipulated individual atoms into an iconic image". University of Warwick. 13 April 2017. Retrieved 4 June 2022.
  112. ^ "Graduation 2017".
  113. ^ "'STUBBORN TRUST' LED TO PARIS AGREEMENT, U.N. CLIMATE CHANGE LEADER SAYS". Georgetown University. 8 April 2016.
  114. ^ Downey, Fiona (13 May 2015). "Concordia University awards honorary doctorates to six distinguished individuals". Concordia News.
  115. ^ "Record 3,994 Students Graduate From UMass Boston on Friday". UMass Boston News. 30 May 2014.
  116. ^ CNN Staff (8 March 2020). "Christiana Figueres on why women are vital to the climate fight". CNN. Retrieved 8 March 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Succeeded by

External links[edit]