U.N.’s Departing Climate Negotiator Leaves Optimistic—Somehow

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UNFCCC head Yvo de Boer receives a farewell gift at the Bonn talks

For the past four years, the U.N.’s annual climate talks have been led by a dapper Swiss diplomat named Yvo de Boer. In that time period, the chances of a global climate deal have gone from unthinkable to inevitable and now, seemingly impossible. Through the impossibly long negotiating sessions and the walkouts and the protests and the occasional glimmers of hope, de Boer has been —with a few exceptions—has been remarkably placid and constant. It’s tough to imagine the U.N. talks—perhaps the most important and complicated international negotiations in history—carrying on without de Boer’s reassuring monotone.

They’ll have to, though, because de Boer will be leaving his position as the executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the end of June, handing it over to the Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres. De Boer isn’t leaving on a high note. Last December’s climate summit in Copenhagen was a logistical nightmare, and its outcome—a hastily put together nonbinding agreement called the Copenhagen Accord—was a disappointment to most environmentalists. In the months since Copenhagen belief in climate change has ebbed in many countries, including the U.S., where the possibility of climate legislation with a carbon cap—an essential step if there’s ever going to be an equitable global deal on global warming—remains elusive. Around the world, the cancerous global recession has displaced climate change as a major concern. But in an interview with the New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, published on Yale Environment 360, de Boer says he’s still optimistic:

I think for a multitude of reasons, of which concern over climate change is one, governments around the world are already beginning to shift their policies. In the aftermath of Copenhagen we had 127 countries associate themselves with the Copenhagen Accord. Those countries cover more than 80 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions. All industrialized countries have submitted 2020 targets and 35 or 36 developing countries, including all the big ones, have submitted national action plans. So I think the world is beginning to move on climate change. The challenge now is to put in place through the negotiations the regulatory framework that will allow them to proceed on that road in a balanced and well-organized way.

De Boer believes the real—and underrecognized—advance in climate negotiations over the past few years has been the steady erosion of the wall between developed and developing nations. The Kyoto Protocol put mandatory carbon cuts on industrialized nations, but effectively asked nothing of developing ones. That division was just, at least at first—rich nations have been responsible for the vast majority of carbon emitted into the atmosphere over the past century and a half—but it wasn’t tenable over the long term, as  developing nations like China and India became major carbon emitters in their own right. But de Boer believes that wall is beginning to crumble, as major developing nations realize they too need to address carbon if they want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change:

The big gain of [the] Bali [climate talks] for me was the fact that we recognized that having only industrialized-country targets under Kyoto was not good enough, that we need to move to a comprehensive global response. And I think that there needs to be learning-by-doing experience, especially in developing countries, that embarking on climate policy can be married with economic growth. And the speed at which we learn that lesson depends to a considerable extent on the effectiveness with which we can put an international regime in place. If developing countries are confident that there is financial, technological, and capacity-building support for them to embark on this journey, then I think that the willingness will grow to move forward.

But de Boer knows that developing countries care first and foremost about economic growth, getting their people out of poverty. (For that matter, so do Americans, according to a new poll.) If citizens can’t be convinced that economic growth is possible without growth in carbon emissions, climate change won’t be solved:

But I think at the end of the day if you can’t make a convincing case that green growth is possible, then it’s end of story. And part of being able to make a convincing case on green growth is pricing carbon properly… We have not made the green economic growth case convincingly. That’s still a process that we are in. I still maintain that the most effective way of making that case is by reversing the polluter pace principle and instead of seeing the producer as the polluter to see the consumer as the polluter. I don’t feel the slightest inclination to exert influence on your lifestyle, although that’s undoubtedly a very good one, as long as you don’t confront me with the bill for your bad behavior. You know, you can drive the biggest Hummer that you want, providing the environmental cost of that vehicle is in the price tag that you pay rather than in the price tag that I have to pick up on my bicycle.

And despite all the stress—and the ceaseless travel—de Boer still feels good about the international approach to global warming:

I’m leaving it more optimistic. I mean, I really think it was a tremendous achievement that under the Bush administration we managed to launch negotiations in Bali. I think the number of countries that have, after Copenhagen, associated themselves with the accord is a testament to the fact that leaders are not willing to be slowed down by lack of formal progress. So I think the world politically has turned a corner on this issue.

Is de Boer right? Just having President Barack Obama in the White House, rather than a global warming skeptic like George W. Bush, has opened the door to concerted global action on climate change. And the developing world is no longer locked into a monolithic negotiating position that says all the action on global warming must to be taken by rich nations. But nonetheless, the gap between what most of the science says on climate change, and where the world is willing to go politically, just seems to get wider and wider. The idea of a grand international carbon market—one that would succeed the flawed Kyoto Protocol—is more dream than reality. And increasingly countries are dealing with energy reform on their own—witness China spending hundreds of billion dollars on alternative power and energy efficiency. That’s good, but there’s no real indication yet that domestic policies—especially in developing nations like China—will lead to flexibility in international climate negotiations.

The truth is that while climate change may be the common problem to end all common problems, I just don’t see the world approaching it in a common way. International institutions seem to be growing weaker—as happened to the UN during de Boer’s time. It’s as if governments have learned that the atmosphere really is a limited resource, like oil—but instead of working collectively to preserve it, they’re competing to see who can take more while it’s still there.

Climate negotiations will continue without the tireless diplomat the press deemed the Flying Dutchman—talks just concluded in Bonn, desultorily, and the next major summit is in Cancun, Mexico at the end of the year. (And let me just say—all UN climate change summits should take place in Cancun.) De Boer should take a long, long vacation—no one deserves it more. But I can’t share his optimism about the future.