On Global Warming, an Ambitious Agenda

Yvo de Boer, the top U.N. negotiator on climate change, says each of the organization's agencies has incorporated global warming into its mission.
Yvo de Boer, the top U.N. negotiator on climate change, says each of the organization's agencies has incorporated global warming into its mission. (By Adam Nadel -- World Economic Forum via AP)
By Juliet Eilperin and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The United Nations' commitment to securing an international climate deal will be on full display Tuesday, as world leaders come together in New York to discuss how best to address global warming. But the event, arranged by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, highlights both the possibilities and obstacles Ban and his deputies face in orchestrating the historic pact.

Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy, will be chairing the pivotal U.N. climate talks in December and is in New York this week. She said in an interview that people often fixate on the world's major carbon emitters, and forget that any final agreement must involve powerful and small countries alike.

"It's not just a bilateral U.S.-China thing, or even a trilateral U.S.-China-Europe thing," Hedegaard said. "It's 192 countries."

Ban has made a binding, international commitment to cutting greenhouse gases a central pillar of his tenure.

The "slow pace of negotiations is a matter of deep concern," Ban told reporters last week. "We want world leaders to show they understand the gravity of climate risks. . . . We want them to give their negotiating teams marching orders to accelerate the progress towards a fair, effective, comprehensive and scientifically ambitious global climate agreement in Copenhagen."

Ban, along with Yvo de Boer, executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Achim Steiner, the U.N. Environment Program executive director, have pushed hard for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. That 1997 pact, which the United States ultimately abandoned, never set emissions targets for emerging nations such as China and India. Ban has traveled with researchers to the Arctic to see the effects of warming, and went to Bali in December 2007 to resuscitate faltering U.N. talks.

De Boer and Steiner have been no less committed. As the United Nations' top negotiator, de Boer spends 80 percent of his time on the road, trying to cajole recalcitrant government leaders into putting money and commitments to concrete reductions on the table to combat climate change. He said every U.N. agency has incorporated global warming into its mission, from the agricultural policies of the Food and Agriculture Commission to the analyses by the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"I don't think I've ever seen the U.N. come together on anything the way it's come together on climate change," said de Boer, a Dutchman who took over the talks three years ago. "This is really the New York Philharmonic of climate change, and I'm playing Bartok, unfortunately."

De Boer has appeared visibly despondent during the negotiations' tensest moments and chastises rich governments for not providing enough aid to poorer ones and U.S. environmental groups for saying the world might need to wait another year to agree to a final climate deal. De Boer, who often speaks in analogies, says these nongovernmental organizations "would like to have this baby a year late. As everyone knows, carrying a baby for nine months is a lot. I've been carrying this baby for two years, and to ask me to go a year over is a bit much to ask."

Steiner, a German environmental expert who grew up in Brazil, has devoted much of the past year to making the economic case for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Last October, his agency published an initiative called the "Global Green New Deal," aimed at convincing world leaders that they should invest a sizable percentage of their stimulus dollars in environmental and clean energy projects. It pointed out ways in which spending money on environmentally friendly projects paid off; as Steiner puts it, nations are not going to change just because global temperatures are rising.

"The science has been a continuous driver, but underneath that, if we have to move to a low-carbon economy, how can we move in a way that won't leave us unemployed with all the lights turned off?" he said.

Ban and his deputies have won praise for their efforts. "The three of them have anchored this very well," Timothy Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation and a former senator from Colorado, said last week. But the conundrum Steiner points to -- getting political leaders to change their nations' economic trajectory -- poses a major challenge.

"This only works if it drives a transformation in the real economy," said John Ashton, the British foreign minister's special representative for climate change. "You have to do that through domestic politics, and U.N. negotiations can't do that."

Lynch reported from the United Nations.

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