Despite Rough Ride on Climate, Yvo de Boer Departs an Optimist

Even after the failure to reach agreement on binding CO2 cuts in Copenhagen last December, the United Nations’ outgoing chief climate negotiator is confident that the world is making progress on global warming. The key, he says, is convincing all nations, particularly developing ones, that tackling climate change is in their long-term economic interest.

For four years, Yvo de Boer, executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has faced the daunting challenge of persuading nearly 200 nations that it’s in their interests to begin weaning themselves from the fossil fuels that make the world go ‘round. The culmination of his tenure came last December in Denmark, where he and many others tried — and failed — to get world powers to commit to binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

As he prepares to leave his post at the end of June, de Boer — widely admired for his diplomatic skills and commitment to blunting the gathering threat of global warming — says he is not discouraged by the slow pace of talks to reduce emissions. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, conducted by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, de Boer said the world community now squarely acknowledges the dangers posed by climate change and that since Copenhagen 127 countries have backed the Copenhagen Accord, with many agreeing to voluntary emissions reductions targets. “Governments around the world are already beginning to shift their policies,” he said. “The world is beginning to move on climate change.”

yvo de boer
Yvo de Boer

It’s vital, said de Boer, that the world’s industrialized nations step up efforts to slash emissions, while also working with countries such as China to make the transition to green energy. Innovative policies to shift world economies to renewable fuels are needed to alleviate concerns from major developing countries that cutting emissions will prevent them from lifting their people out of poverty, said de Boer. “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,” he said.

De Boer said he is more optimistic today than when he assumed his position in 2006. The struggle to slow global warming will be a long one, he said, but he remains convinced that the world community will one day realize the economic and environmental benefits of making the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. “I really do believe,” said de Boer, “that once we take the first serious bites of this, we’ll actually find it tastes quite good.”

Yale Environment 360: Obviously no one’s had a more comprehensive view of climate negotiations for the last four years than you have. In your opinion, as you get ready to go, what is it going to take to move this process forward? You hear a lot of people saying we’re not going to do anything until there’s a disaster, at which point obviously the science tells us that it’s too late.

Yvo de Boer: Well, I certainly hope we’re not going to wait until there is a disaster because, as you rightly say, then it will be too late. Sometimes international climate policy reminds me a little bit of the frog in water that gets hotter and hotter, and the frog doesn’t notice until it’s too late. If we let things get out of control and are already confronted by extreme impacts of climate change, then it really will be too late.

I don’t have the sense that’s the direction in which it’s going. 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.

“Part of the stalemate is that developing nations are not impressed by the efforts made by industrialized countries.”

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.

e360: You said [recently] that you did not see the process delivering adequate emissions targets in the next decade. What are the consequences of waiting beyond 2020?

de Boer: Well, what I was trying to explain is that the industrialized country targets that were offered post-Copenhagen do not take us into the minus 25 to 40 percent range that the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says is what gives us a 50-50 chance of avoiding a more than 2 degree [Celsius] temperature increase. And the targets and actions committed by all countries post-Copenhagen are not sufficient to see a global peaking of emissions in the next decade. So that means that we would need to see a very significant increase of ambition in the next couple of years for goals by the end of the decade to measure up to what science tells us is needed. And I think that the likelihood of dramatically increasing on the offers that were made post-Copenhagen by the time we get to [climate talks in] Mexico [in December] is relatively small.

e360: Right. You also said that it’s essential that current pledges grow over the next few years, otherwise the 2 degree C world will be in danger. Now, you know already, even under best-case scenarios, we have a 50-50 chance, science tells us, of staying below 2 degrees C. So what do you see as the odds of staying below that target at this point? And, as a follow-up, at what point do we say that the door to a 2 degree C world has been slammed shut?

de Boer: I think that the key to getting this thing under control quickly enough lies in getting started. I mean, many people remember that when sulfur dioxide trading started in the United States, industry was screaming that this would be the end. And instead they turned out to be well-implementable programs that actually led to significant cost savings.

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.

Part of the stalemate, I think, is caused by the fact that developing nations are not particularly impressed by the efforts made by industrialized countries so far, be it in terms of emission reductions or in terms of financial support for the developing world. And at the same time, those developing countries are being asked to take on increasing commitments when they’re not sure that there will be delivery on the necessary infrastructure.

e360: When President Obama was elected there were high hopes in this country at least, and I assume internationally, that U.S. policy was going to change or there was going to be progress on climate. What kind of marks do you give the administration so far?

de Boer: Well it depends, I suppose, on what kind of an educationalist you are. I would give the administration eight out of 10 for effort since I believe in encouragement.

e360: Oh you’re an easy grader.

de Boer: Well, the mark for actual results would be unfortunately a little bit lower. But I must say the Obama administration hasn’t exactly had it easy in the sense that pretty much everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in terms of debates about the economic recovery package. The financial crisis which took up a lot of attention, then getting agreement on the economic recovery package, then health care coming on top of that, where I think President Obama had to use a lot of his credit and leverage. Then the legislation getting stuck in the Senate, now this oil crisis and the whole debate that that is sparking.

e360: Right, but I guess I would argue a lot of those things were self-inflicted. I mean, they didn’t have to do those things. They chose where to spend their chips.

de Boer: Well, I think you can blame President Obama for a lot, but I don’t think you can blame him for the economic crisis. I certainly think that that made the whole health care thing much more difficult, and even though I’ve devoted 14 or 15 years of my life to addressing climate change, I can understand that President Obama accorded a higher priority to health care given how important that is directly to the American people and how long Democratic administrations have been trying to get that fixed.

e360: What in your mind is a realistic stabilization target at this point?

I believe that once we take the first serious bite of this, we’ll actually find it tastes quite good.”

de Boer: I think it’s realistic to work towards a 450 parts per million concentration [of atmospheric CO2] scenario, so the 50-50 for 2 degrees [C increase]. I really do believe that once we take the first serious bite of this, we’ll actually find it tastes quite good. What I find interesting is that countries like China and Korea seem to have realized more clearly than all others that this economic crisis needs to be used to change the economic growth paradigm. I think that China recognizes as no other country that you simply cannot continue to achieve 7, 8, 9 percent economic growth per year with the current economic model. I don’t know how many times in every decade you would need to double the size of the Chinese rail network to move enough coal across the country to keep the current model surviving. So I think there is in many parts of the world a recognition that something needs to change. And I honestly believe that once we begin to embark on that journey in a serious way, we will become increasingly enthusiastic and see that shift.

e360: After Copenhagen you heard people start to argue that the whole UN process is just too unwieldy, you can’t get 190-plus countries to agree to basically anything. And that we need to try to maybe find a new way forward. What would you say to those folks?

de Boer: Well, I would say we got 190 countries to sign up to the climate change convention in Rio, we got 190 countries to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. We got 190 countries to launch negotiations for the next round in Bali, so I think it’s been done before. That doesn’t mean to say it’s easy. I suppose one of the great drawbacks of democracy is that it takes time and effort, that the fact of the matter is that in these negotiations you’ve got major industrialized countries that are worried about their competitive edge, major developing countries that are worrying about how they’re going to marry climate policy and poverty eradication. Small island countries that are afraid all of this debate is going to take so long they won’t be around to see the successful conclusion. And then oil-, coal-, and gas-producing countries or companies that are afraid climate policy is going to be the end of them.

And trying to find a balance in all of that is difficult. It would be relatively easy to get the 20 biggest emitters around the table and say, “Let’s deal with the emissions side of the equation.” But that doesn’t mean that you’ve addressed the concerns of the 100-plus developing countries that have contributed nothing to climate change but will be confronted with most of the consequences.

e360: Well, that gets to the question of whether there is even in theory a treaty that’s both equitable and effective. I mean, you do have these incredibly profound equity issues that are on the table and by some accounts [are] almost insoluble.

It’s a longer journey that we’re on and we need to raise our level of ambition over time.”

de Boer: Well, in my speech to delegates [at a meeting in Bonn] one of the things I said was that greater legal rigor doesn’t always lead to greater ambition. I don’t know if the attempt or the perceived attempt to impose targets on major developing countries really encourages those countries to step forward and be ambitious. The dilemma in all this is that on the one hand the sense of urgency makes you want to act fast, but on the other hand I at least have the realization that this really needs to be a learning-by-doing process. That it’s a longer journey that we’re on and we need to raise our level of ambition over time.

When I was in that small group of heads of government negotiating the final deal in Copenhagen, I heard every single industrialized country leader being willing to commit to an 80 percent reduction by the middle of the century. Determining how that is to be achieved, how fast, and with who taking what share of that 80 percent reduction will require many rounds of negotiation.

e360: But couldn’t I argue anyone can agree to a target of 80 percent long after they’re dead. I mean, isn’t the challenge to agree to something that you can be held to, within a time span that people can adequately keep track of?

de Boer: I’ve tried to find the marking point between short term and long term. I think the marking point, the point that marks the transition from short term to long term, is called elections. And it doesn’t matter if the elections are in a week’s time or in three years’ time, that’s the point that marks the transition. If you as a leader commit to something which voters generally see as nonsense or offering platitudes beyond the grave, [it will] not be well received.

e360: If you look back in the history of the world, are there planetary problems that we’ve solved this way?

If you can’t make a convincing case that green growth is possible, then it’s end of story.”

de Boer: We’ve made a number of transitions in the global economy, be it from steam to modern industry or into the Internet era. I think we have made big global transitions. If I had to compare it with another huge struggle, I think the struggle to get the world to accept that smoking is actually bad for your health is very comparable to what we’re going through on climate change, including much of the industry resistance and fighting the science and all of it. 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.

e360: Is there any advice that you’re giving to your successor [Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica] that you can share with us?

de Boer: I think that clearly one of the major issues that we need to address in moving forward is confidence on the part of the developing countries that this actually is in their real long-term economic interest, their environmental interest aside. And I think she being someone who comes from a developing country, and somebody who comes from a developing country that’s decided to act very aggressively on climate change, will give her a definite advantage in terms of understanding where the concerns of developing countries lie and trying to find ways forward that deal with those concerns.

e360: Are you leaving this job more or less optimistic about solving this problem than you entered it four years ago?

I’m leaving more optimistic. I think the world politically has turned a corner on this issue.”

de Boer: 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. Having worked in environment ministries for a large part of my life, I’ve always known that unless you get this topic on the agenda of world leaders it’s just not going to move. And 120 heads of state and governments coming to Copenhagen, I think, was in and of itself very significant indeed.

e360: Can you talk to us just a little bit about what you see your role as going forward? What are you going to be doing?

de Boer: Well, I’ve been saying for a long time that while governments need to provide the policy framework, it’s up to the private sector to deliver the results. And what I’m going to be doing over the coming years is looking very hard to see how you can design international and national climate change policy and sustainability policy that makes sense from a business point of view. What do you need to do to make it possible for business to advance?

e360: Is there anything I should have asked you that I missed?

de Boer: Well, what I see if I look around me is a number of global trends. There’s a global trend on energy prices and energy security, which is preoccupying you guys in the U.S. very much. There’s a global trend on climate change. There’s a global trend on natural resource depletion. And those three trends are all basically pointing in the same direction. And coming at those three trends at the speed of about 300 miles an hour is 5.4 billion people currently living on less than 10 dollars a day who would love to get a lifestyle.

e360: Those are very hard to reconcile.

de Boer: It’s possible to reconcile, but you can only reconcile it with a more sustainable economic model. So that means that even if the political climate change debate is delayed a little bit, that’s not going to slow things down on energy prices, resource depletion, or population growth. And I think, I’ve always maintained that the best thing that ever happened for climate policy in Europe was when Russia closed the gas pipeline to the Ukraine. Because then suddenly European energy policy, European climate policy, and industrial policy, which up to then had been in complete conflict with each other, suddenly became aligned.