Choosing the next UN climate change chief

Adil Najam April 22, 2010

The United Nations is seeking a new climate chief to head the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Pakistan has made an excellent choice by nominating a noted environmentalist, Dr Tariq Banuri, as its candidate. The United Nations Secretary General has the responsibility to find someone who can help put global climate negotiations that are now in utter disarray back on tracks.

He also has the opportunity to give real direction to the ongoing debate on improved global environmental governance, which has been floundering and rudderless. This is not an easy job, and the process of finding the right person is not made any easier by the petty politics of pride that invariably accompany high-level UN appointments.

Six well-respected climate leaders are now in the race: Dr Tariq Banuri (Pakistan), Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), Janos Pasztor (Hungary), Marthins van Schalkwyk (South Africa), Vijai Sharma (India) and Elizabeth Thompson (Barbados). Not that he has asked for advice, but since his own climate change advisor (Mr Pasztor) is also running for the job, let us offer the Secretary-General a few suggestions on criteria that he should be using as he makes up his mind. First, choose a development person.

This is not just about selecting someone from a developing country (if it were that simple, any except one of the official candidates would do). This is about appointing someone who has a demonstrated commitment and passion for linking climate and development. This is not about ‘delivering’ developing country votes to any future climate agreement.

This is about being able to shape a process that can deliver a climate agreement that truly incorporates the environmental as well as development interests of nations. The inability to bridge this environment-development divide was a major cause of the breakdown of the Copenhagen talks.

The UNFCCC needs someone at its helm who can bring together the interests of developing and industrialised countries and who commands genuine respect in the environmental and development communities. Second, find a thought-leader. The role of treaty secretariats is to design and manage the process of negotiations and not to influence its outcomes.

The secretariat leaders who are seen to be proxies for any of the major parties in the negotiations can end up hurting their own credibility and the negotiation process. What the UNFCCC secretariat needs today is not just political skills, but thought-leadership. The issue of climate change is itself transforming.

New issues, new actors and new approaches are becoming important. The negotiation process is complex enough as it is, but the scientific complexity makes it that much more difficult. The ability to not just understand but have a command of these complexities can make all the difference.Finally, be bold. Normally such appointments are based on a combination of regional and political expediency and most likely end up with an uninspiring but acceptable choice.

But these are not ‘normal’ times and we need a bold approach. The Secretary-General should be looking beyond the obvious. To be fair, all the official candidates are competent and well-regarded and will do a decent job of managing the secretariat.

But in choosing someone like Dr Banuri there is an opportunity to send a real signal about the centrality of sustainable development to climate change as well as on global environmental governance. It would be a pity if this opportunity is missed.

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