Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the most senior official and negotiator in the UN climate change treaty system, and comes from a family dynasty steeped in the arts of politics and diplomacy.
Her father, Jose Figueres Ferrer, served three terms as president of the Central American nation of Costa Rica.
Her mother, Karen Olsen Beck, served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel and was later elected a member of her country’s legislative assembly.
Her older brother, Jose Figueres Olsen, is also a past president of Costa Rica and her younger brother, Mariano Figueres Olsen, is currently active in politics.
The 55-year-old mother of two daughters is married to German-born Konrad von Ritter, a former head of the World Bank’s sustainable development unit.
She speaks Spanish, English and German, and is now based permanently in Bonn, Germany.
Figueres, who will play a key role in the COP17 negotiations in Durban, has worked as a private-sector consultant on carbon trading and has more than a decade of experience in previous climate talks as a member of the Costa Rican climate change negotiating team.
She grew up in Costa Rica in a farming community founded by her father and learned German at the Humboldt Schule.
Figueres later studied in England and the United States, graduating with a degree in anthropology from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in social anthropology from the London School of Economics.
She began her public service career in 1982 as a minister counsellor at the embassy of Costa Rica in Bonn, where she was responsible for negotiating the terms of technical assistance and development finance.
Returning to Costa Rica in 1987, she was appointed director of international co-operation in the Ministry of Planning and helped to negotiate financial and technical agreements with eight European countries.
A year later she became chief of staff to the minister of agriculture, before moving to Washington with her husband, who worked at the World Bank. She re-entered professional life in the mid-1990s, founding the Centre for Sustainable Development of the Americas, a think-tank promoting the participation of Latin American countries in the UN climate change treaty system.
She also helped to prepare several greenhouse gas reduction projects in the energy and industry sectors, and from 2007 to 2009 represented Latin America as vice-president of the Bureau of the UN Climate Convention.
She was also closely involved in the design and promotion of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the carbon-trading offshoot scheme of the Kyoto Protocol, which allows developed nations to “offset” their greenhouse gas emissions in developing nations.
She has served as a member of the CDM executive board, advised several private-sector carbon-trading companies such as C Quest Capital, and was also a board member of Winrock International, which oversees the voluntary American Carbon Registry.
She was appointed to her current position as executive secretary of the UNFCCC early last year, taking over from Yvo de Boer of the Netherlands.
1. What is her role in the COP17 negotiations?
In a recent press briefing, Figueres described her main function as a facilitator “helping to kick the ball forward” during the Durban talks and to provide support to the host nation in reaching further agreements.
2. What are some of her expectations for the Durban talks?
“Climate change is possibly the largest challenge humanity has ever faced, but every conference of the parties is only a step in the right direction.
“We have to chart a path as we move forward. This journey has not been mapped before and every country will have to walk down that path together.
“What is needed is scale and speed.
“What we have done until now has been insufficient. It has been slow. Governments know this, but it is not only the responsibility of governments to move forward.
“The private sector needs to step up and provide the inputs they can. So must civil society.”
“Governments are the steering wheel on climate change, but in many instances the private sector is the motor which drives towards the targets.”
3. What is her own country doing to tackle climate change?
“Costa Rica produces only 0.001 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Yet we have taken on the target of carbon neutrality by 2021. We have taken the decision that it is every country’s moral responsibility to reduce carbon as much as possible.
“But we are not the only one. There is a growing sense that everyone can contribute to the solution, but in a differentiated manner.”