UN chooses former Grenada minister as climate chief at critical time

One of the most high profile global policy roles as UN climate chief will be taken up by Simon Stiell, Grenada’s former minister for climate resilience and the environment, just months ahead of COP27 summit in Egypt.

The 53-year-old takes on the job as the executive secretary of the United Nations climate change secretariat, held since 2016 until this year by Patricia Espinosa, a former diplomat and foreign minister of Mexico, at a tumultuous time.

The appointment of “one of the Caribbean’s most dedicated climate champions” was widely welcomed by vulnerable and developing nations encouraged by how vocal he has been on their behalf. UN and youth representatives of Barbados, Ghana, Ethiopia and the Nigerian minister of environment were among those offering their congratulations.

Stiell studied engineering and business at London Metropolitan and Westminster universities and worked in the private sector, including for Nokia, before returning to Grenada and starting a property development company and becoming chair of the tourism board. He was appointed to the Senate in 2013 and rose to become climate minister in 2018 until his centre-right party was voted out of government in June this year.

The Bonn-based job gives Stiell less than three months to prepare for the gathering of almost 200 nations at COP27, the decision-making forum for the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.

The conference is expected to be a tough test for global negotiators, with countries around the world squeezed by the energy and food crises that are competing for attention and resources with action on climate change.

Developing and small island nations are hoping that a conference held on the African continent will shine a light on the plight of poorer countries and their need for assistance to tackle and adapt to climate change.

Speaking to the FT last summer, Stiell said extreme weather events in small island states such as his Caribbean island “have been a reality for quite some time . . . We know and recognise that things are only going to get worse.”

“Our greatest challenge is actually in securing the resources that are required to adapt,” he said, adding that developing nations needed financial as well as technical support.

Climate change was “no longer an academic exercise” for Grenada, Stiell said. “We are having to divert resources from our education programmes, our healthcare programmes, other social development projects . . . the stresses on our economic resources have never been as extreme.”

After China said last year that it would end the financing of new coal power plants overseas, Stiell welcomed the announcement but said he hoped to see “action domestically on coal.” China was among the countries at COP26 that watered down the final agreement, in which countries agreed to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal.

Alok Sharma, a UK minister and COP26 president, said he had worked “closely with Simon over the past couple of years and know he will do a great job!”

There have been five executive directors of the UNFCCC since it was established in 1992, including three women, with Stiell the sixth.

Rachel Kyte, a member of the UN secretary-general’s high-level advisory group on climate, noted that Stiell was taking on “a big job at a critical moment”.

“Who better to keep global negotiations and collaboration for urgent climate action and justice on track and honest than a proven manager/leader from a small island state. Kudos,” she tweeted.

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