Profile: Jose Maria Figueres

Profile: Jose Maria Figueres

“The world can no longer afford to be intimidated by the magnitude of the climate crisis, nor into believing that we must choose between economic prosperity and environmental security.” So said President of Carbon War Room and joint head of the new Global Ocean Commission. The former Costa Rican President also said: “Overcoming that challenge will result in one of the greatest wealth creation opportunities ever—a modern industrial revolution that could radically reshape society and our planet.” Read More

Jose Maria Figueres:

Who he is and what he’s said:

When and where he said it – and he has repeated it many times – this is what Jose Maria Figueres is reported to have said when he was CEO of the World Economic Forum (from 2003). Costa Rica’s former president said – “there is no Planet B, we have no second chance, we need to act now. What we are currently doing is re-arranging the deck chairs on Titanic”.

From the editor:

You can Google Jose Maria Figueres and find out a lot about him and his illustrious family. I have met him twice now and talked to him in his position as president of the Carbon War Room. I sat at the same table as him for the CNBC Energy Opportunities brain storm last October – reported in abc carbon express and at   We have quoted him previously in this newsletter, including this issue when he introduces the new Carbon War Room report on Energy Efficiency for Buildings. This issue we give a little more insight into this “remarkable revolutionary” , a leader in the world of sustainability and climate change action. – Ken Hickson

In a ‘letter to our readers’, as an introduction to the latest Carbon War Room report “Raising the Roof”, Jose Maria Figueres had this to say:

Climate change presents one of the greatest challenges in human history—a challenge that transcends national boundaries, income, ideology, race, and ethnicity. Overcoming that challenge will result in one of the greatest wealth creation opportunities ever—a modern industrial revolution that could radically reshape society and our planet.

The world can no longer afford to be intimidated by the magnitude of the climate crisis, nor into believing that we must choose between economic prosperity and environmental security.

The Carbon War Room takes a global, sector-based approach. Our mission is to accelerate the adoption of proven clean technologies and innovative business models in order to achieve profitable, gigaton-scale reductions of carbon emissions. One sector in which the Carbon War Room is a sector with an estimated market potential of $87 billion per year, and an equally substantial opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2010, the Carbon War Room launched the Green Capital Global Challenge (GCGC) to help cities around the world use innovative mechanisms to support energy efficiency in their built environments, thereby bringing capital, energy technologies, and jobs to their citizens in a sustainable and profitable way.

Having concluded the GCGC, we are now, with this paper, able to share the insights we gained over the course of that Challenge with cities and building management groups around the world. We hope that this information will be used to stimulate new initiatives or accelerate existing initiatives in readers’ own cities.

This publication, “Raising the Roof: How to Create Climate Wealth Through Efficient Buildings”, is a collection of observed global best practices as they relate to finance, technology, and policy. Whether discussing San Francisco’s benchmarking ordinance, the UK’s Green Deal, or Melbourne’s 1200 Buildings program, this guide is meant to provide real estate owners, capital providers, entrepreneurs, and policy makers with a point of reference on how energy efficiency projects are currently working (or not) around the world. We also provide a selection of further resources to facilitate more in-depth research.



He famously said at a Creating Climate Wealth forum in 2010 (but the statement “there is no Planet B!” is attributed to him during his time at the World Economic Forum):

“There is no planet B!” In politics, he said, “The long-term perspective is the next election. The short-term is the next poll.” In Costa Rica, he had a single term, by law, so he was able to pass a carbon tax in the 1990s! And on land-based carbon assets, he said, “As long as the price of a tree standing is less than the price of a tree cut for timber, we won’t save the forests.”


In February 2013 he said at the Launch of the Global Ocean Commission, London, which he jointly chairs:

‘The world urgently needs to find better ways of managing the oceans, to stop abuse of its precious resources and ensure its protection for present and future generations,’ said José María Figueres.

‘The global ocean is essential to the health and well-being of each and every one of us. It provides about half of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs about a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions; but we are failing to manage it in ways that reflect its true value. The Global Ocean Commission will help highlight its worth in our lives and indicate ways in which we can ensure its resources are used sustainably.’



In abc carbon express in October 2012, when he was in Singapore for the International Energy Week:

Jose Maria Figueres, President of the Carbon War Room and Former President of Costa Rica, was concerned that the door to 2°C has already closed. He asserts that 2°C is “no more a possibility under our present way of conducting our sales”. Citing the population in Bangladesh that will be displaced by floods and rising sea levels, Figueres said future climate change dialogue would also need to be anchored on values. For example, should countries accept climate refugees?

The Figueres family led Costa Rica’s revolution, and now its green revolution

As the Bonn climate talks begin, John Vidal speaks to former president José María Figueres about Costa Rica’s journey towards sustainability

John Vidal, environment editor  for, Monday 14 May 2012:

Jose Maria Figueres, former president of Costa Rica

Say the name Figueres in Costa Rica and it’s bound to get a reaction. José “Don Pepe” Figueres led the 1948 revolution, was president three times, nationalised the banks and gave women and black people the vote. His daughter Christiana is the UN’s climate chief trying to steer almost 200 countries through the most complex international negotiations ever attempted; and her brother José María was one of Latin America’s youngest ever presidents at the age of 39.

Now José María – who coined the phrase “there’s no planet B” when head of the World Economic Forum – has joined his sister in the fight for a global energy revolution by taking over as head of the climate change business thinktank Carbon War Room, which aims to get business to cut gigatonnes of carbon by sharing best practice information.

She hopes to lead the world’s public sector into a low carbon future, he the private sector. But is it an accident of history or sibling rivalry played out on the international stage that accounts for so many revolutionaries in one central American family?

“I call her ‘Hermanita’, or Little Sister,” says José María. “We pulled each other’s hairs out [as children]. It’s always been a fierce but friendly rivalry between us. We have worked together before. When I was minister of agriculture she was my chief of staff. I was the boss, but she solved the problems. When I was president she was on the government’s climate negotiating team. I like to think she is responsible for finding solutions for 50% of the carbon cuts needed and I must find them for the other half. I’d love to be her chief of staff.”

Their father was a landowner and coffee grower who launched a revolution of intellectuals and farmers from the small family ranch he called “La Luccha sin Fin” (the endless struggle) high in the central mountains. The revolution was, he says, based on a liberal, Scandinavian model of universal healthcare, public education, and strong institutions.

“Mother was an MP and later a diplomat. Father taught us the values of no wastage and austerity and of a life in harmony with the natural habitat. We learned politics at the family table. We ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every conversation was about politics, the challenge of development, inequalities and legislation. A table with all of us was so argumentative. There must have been something in the water we drank,” he says.

But José María says that when 18 he wanted a change and chose to go to leading US military academy West Point, whose alumni included presidents Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower as well as five people who have walked on the moon. This is remarkable, he accepts, because his father is the only president in modern history to have abolished a standing army. “Father had a fit when I went to West Point. He never went there. Perhaps it was my challenge to him,” he says.

There followed years at Harvard, as an engineer, a farming boss and then in public service. “I was invited to turn around the railways and then I was made minister of agriculture and forests. We concentrated on resource management and efficiency. We moved to the biological control of pests instead of pesticides.”

When he was elected Costa Rican president in 1994, the Berlin wall had come down, the Soviet Union had imploded, the Gulf war had been fought and the Rio Earth summit had been held. He says the world had changed and Costa Rica would not be able to compete in the new world without new ideas – so he turned to business and sustainable development.

“I brought in economists like Jeffrey Sachs. I was strongly influenced by people like Maurice Strong [who headed the Rio earth summit] and his adviser on business, the Swiss industrialist Stefan Shmidheiny who set up the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

His single term – all that was allowed – was the start of Costa Rica’s move towards an economy based on eco-tourism, conservation and national parks. “It began my thinking about the ethical and moral necessity to be efficient with natural resources,” he says.

Today, “eco-travel” is the country’s biggest industry, worth billions of dollars a year, and sustainable development has proved lucrative. Most farmers benefit in some way from eco tourism, and, from a country in real danger of losing all its forests in 1970, 25% is now dedicated to conservation.

“Climate change is the ultimate challenge. But I am convinced that the development opportunity of our lifetimes lies in the transition to a low carbon economy. If we are to solve it we need to scale up our responses. We need to attract capital and resources to get there.”

The Carbon War Room has addressed shipping and aviation and will move to become a major international NGO, says José María. “Business needs to learn from civil society. The world can live far better than it does now. Six billion people aspire to live like the other one billion. That is a just aspiration. I really believe that moving to a low carbon economy would unleash entrepreneurship.”

But how would Don Pepe, the old revolutionary, see his two children today? “He would be at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution. He’d be enjoying it. He’d get a kick out of smart grids. Meanwhile, big brother is not waiting for little sister. I wish her the best but we in business are going full steam ahead. At the moment I think business is doing better than countries on climate change, but the jury is out. I know if it were up to Christiana alone that governments would be leading ahead by leaps and bounds.”


Bio rom Carbon War Room

After a successful business career (1979-1987), José María Figueres Olsen served as Minister of State and was later elected President of Costa Rica (1994-1998) at the age of 39. As President he created a comprehensive national development strategy based on the tenets of sustainability: sound economics, investment in human development, and a strong alliance with nature.

José María pioneered the linkage between sustainable development and technology, which he continued after government by helping create and then leading the United Nations ICT Task Force as its first Chairperson (1999).

He was the first person to become CEO of the World Economic Forum (2003), where he strengthened global corporate ties to social and governmental sectors. Later he was named CEO of Concordia 21 (2006), dedicated to supporting organizations that promote development and democratic values around the world.

Figueres joined the Carbon War Room in 2009, currently serving as its President. The organization accelerates entrepreneurial solutions to achieve profitable, gigaton-scale reductions of carbon emissions.

In 2013 Figueres helped launch the Global Ocean Commission to formulate politically and technically feasible recommendations that address key issues facing the high seas. He serves as co-Chair.

José María holds an Engineering Degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.



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