In 1987 she became director of international cooperation in the Ministry of Planning where she designed and directed the negotiation of comprehensive financial and technical cooperation programs with eight European countries, totalling $90 million of investment. She also supervised the evaluation of all national technical and financial assistance requests. A year later, Figueres went on to become Chief of Staff to the Minister of Agriculture, supervising the execution of twenty-two national programs involving training, credit and marketing.
As director of the technical secretariat of the renewable energy in the Americas program from 1994, she promoted policies to advance renewable energies in Latin America, identifying barriers to investment and subsequently possible solutions.
Figueres then went on to found and become executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Development in the Americas in 1995. This is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the participation of Latin American countries in the climate change convention. This led her to do five key things of major impact. Firstly, she created and lead FOCADES: the Central American Fund for Environment and Development. This is an innovative fund for the promotion of biodiversity and clean energy projects in Central America which has had total capitalisation of $15 million since 1995. Secondly, she established the first carbon finance program in the developing world in 1999, called the Latin American Carbon Program. Thirdly, Figueres negotiated the first emission reduction purchase agreement in 2001 which assigned the Andean Development Corporation 45 million euros to purchase emission reductions in Latin America on behalf of the Government of the Netherlands. Fourthly, she envisioned and supervised the creation of the first electronic climate change information system specialising in the Clean Development Mechanism, which she later went on to further develop as negotiator of the UN Convention on Climate Change. Amongst this work, from 1998 to 2007, Figueres’ impact became even wider-reaching as she helped to establish national climate change programs in Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
Throughout this period, Figueres became a negotiator of the UN Convention on Climate Change, representing the Government of Costa Rica, a position which she held from 1995 to 2010. Here, her global impact continued to increase as she helped to write the Kyoto protocol and its subsequent agreements. This involved providing the critical international strategy for achieving support for developing countries and approval of the Kyoto protocol and Clean Development Mechanism. She proposed this Clean Development Mechanism as a sectoral strategy under which developing countries would be encouraged to develop regional or sectoral projects following specific sustainable development policies. To promote this, she published a ground-breaking study in 2005 proposing a ‘programmatic CDM’. In this, she proposes emissions reductions will be achieved not by one single site, but instead by multiple actions executed over time due to a government measure or voluntary program. She conceived programmatic CDM as a way to mobilise mitigation in a highly dispersed and directly beneficial way. This also allows the scaling up of emission reduction activities in all sectors while reducing transition costs. Moreover, it enables transition to more ambitious emissions reduction programs in developing countries.
Following this, Figueres was one of the world leaders on climate change and so rightly appointed to lead the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, six months after the failed COP15 in Copenhagen. The UNFCCC was signed in 1992, binding 195 countries to avoid dangerous levels of global warming through limiting carbon emissions. In 1992, this was 356ppm, and now over 400ppm, not far short of the 450ppm which is the estimated threshold level, beyond which climate change is considered irreversible and detrimental. To address this, Figueres’ role was to convince 195 countries to give up fossil fuels, whilst the national incomes of many of them were reliant on fossil fuel sales, and all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy. Furthermore, she ensured countries stuck to emissions targets, provided developing countries with financial support from the rich world to develop green energy and adapt to global warming, and produced the draft text for a legal instrument to address climate change. She brought together national and subnational government, corporations and activists, financial institutions and communities of faith, think tanks and technology providers, NGOs and parliamentarians, to jointly deliver the Paris Agreement on climate change. Effectively, her role was to manage the world’s response to global warming.
Christiana Figueres has earned her reputation as a world leader on climate change having designed and implemented numerous policies and programs to combat impactful practices and to work towards achieving the targets of the Kyoto and subsequent protocols, many of which she contributed to the negotiation of. Her impact continues across the world, currently holding positions as Vice Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a board member of ClimateWorks, a climate leader of the World Bank, and convenor of Mission 2020. Figueres is one of many inspirational women working to tackle the causes and impacts of climate change across the globe and taking inspiration from her example will empower us all to make a difference to the future.