RI Comment: Why Christiana Figueres should be the next UN Secretary-General

The case for the former UN climate chief taking over from Ban Ki-moon

Imagine a world leader who’s plugged into the role that fiduciary duty can play in investment, who sees the alignment between climate change and pension funds and who is even supportive of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project.

You may have heard of her: Christiana Figueres. She announced her candidacy to be the ‘world’s top diplomat’ – Secretary-General of the UN – earlier this month and here’s why we are supporting it.

Ban Ki-moon steps down at the end of his term on December 31 and the race to succeed him is already in full swing.

Whoever replaces him will be the ninth head of the global body. There are, however, surprisingly few rules governing the selection of the Secretary-General. There isn’t even a job description. The UN Charter states the post “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”.

It means the candidate can be vetoed by any of its five permanent members, who by tradition don’t nominate candidates. Given the UN’s informal ‘rotation’ scheme, there’s speculation the top job will go to someone from Eastern Europe.

But, taking the realpolitik stitch-up out of the equation – and the sense the major players want a ‘secretary’ and not a ‘general’, Figueres’ credentials stand out. She took charge of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the wake of the disastrous Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 when the whole process was in disarray. Yet by the end of 2015 she helped to deliver COP21 as a turning point in climate diplomacy.

As she says herself: “The Paris Agreement was not an accident — it was strategy and attitude. It was the culmination of six years of patient rebuilding of a broken system that had lost all trust and confidence, into one that was capable of entering an upward spiraling of commitment and ambition.” She explains it was the “harvest of years of careful listening”.

“Paris can be an anomaly,” she says “or it can become the norm for multilateralism in the 21st century.”

In her Vision Statement, which candidates are releasing for the first time in a bid to boost transparency, Figueres says the Paris Agreement shows “the fundamental importance of respecting national circumstances, needs and interests”.

The Secretary-General oversees a huge organisation with a budget of approximately $10 billion, a staff of more than 40,000 and 41 peace operations worldwide. The Secretary-General even, via a Representative (currently Carol Boykin), oversees the Investment Management Division of the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund.

Figueres, whose brother is ex-Costa Rican President José María Figueres, the head of the Carbon War Room project, speaks of the world making progress “through dialogue, commitment and investment”.Her Vision Statement explains how she would prioritise collaboration and integration.

She argues the so-called 2030 Agenda, encompassing the Sustainable Development Goals, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the Sendai Framework for Disaster and Risk Reduction, and the Paris Climate Agreement, “give us a clear direction” towards food security, water security, energy security and the avoidance of forced migration.

And she clearly ‘gets’ the RI sector.

In an interview with RI in 2014, she explained how she thought many investors have been hiding their heads in the sand on climate change. She identified positive developments such as FTSE creating a fossil fuel free index with Blackrock and pension funds like PensionDanmark divesting from fossil fuels in favor of renewables.

Addressing the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association in Edinburgh last March, Figueres spoke of the “astonishing alignment” between climate change mitigation and the time scales of pension funds. Speaking of climate resilient infrastructure, she told delegates: “We cannot build what we can’t finance.”

And she added: “We need to define fiduciary duty with a large ‘F’. Those invested in high-cost, high-carbon should get out of that very, very quickly” – or risk breaching their fiduciary duty.

In April, Figueres teamed up with Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management, on the ‘Two Degrees of Change’ initiative to tackle climate change by getting more women on company boards and harnessing their significant presence in ESG teams. The same month, noting how the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund (UNJSPF) had dramatically boosted its ranking in the AODP’s Global Climate 500 Index, she said the initiative is a “valuable insight for investors and shareholders”.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) was incubated within the broader UN system. PRI Chair Martin Skancke, for one, has advocated closer links between the various UN bodies such as the PRI and the Global Compact. With Figueres at the helm, this is plausible given her grasp of the issues.

There’s no denying there are some impressive candidates for the job, which has never been held by a female. Nominating Figueres, Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís declared: “The United Nations, and the world, needs a Secretary-General who is a bridge builder, who can listen and consult, who can help resolve disputes, build agreements and anticipate problems. Christiana Figueres is that person.” We second that. Link to Figueres’ campaign page.