An interview with Yvo de Boer, the United Nations' former climate-change chief

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; B03

Until this month, Yvo de Boer served as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that oversees international climate negotiations. After supervising the Copenhagen climate talks last year, a process he has called frustrating, de Boer suddenly announced in February that he would be stepping down. After nearly four years on the U.N. job (he describes it as "three years and 11 months," but who's counting?), he just started work as an adviser on climate change and sustainability at KPMG International in London. The Washington Post's national environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin spoke with de Boer last week about leaving the United Nations, why he never kept Al Gore out in the cold and how President Obama has his brain in the right place.

Why did you leave your post as executive secretary of the UNFCCC? This is not a job, I think, anybody should want to do for more than three years and 11 months. I don't imagine there's any job one should do for more than three years and 11 months. This really is a position in which you need to be at continuous 200 percent of inventiveness and energy.

I left Copenhagen feeling pretty depressed. But looking at it now, we have a long-term goal of [keeping global temperatures from rising more than] 2 degrees [Celsius]; we have mobilized long-term financing; we've had 127 countries sign onto the Copenhagen Accord; all rich countries have submitted national [emission] targets; all the major developing countries have submitted national action plans.

I think we're in a different phase. We're in a phase where what the world needs to do in 2020 is pretty clear. Government needs to put in place the policy direction, and then the private sector needs to provide the solutions.

To some extent, expectations were too high going into the climate talks in Copenhagen last December, but now some officials have accused you of lowering expectations for this year's conference in Cancun, Mexico, by saying a legally binding treaty will not come out of the negotiations.

It's a very difficult call to make. The negotiators going to Cancun will have to have political backing at the highest possible level if they're going to have the mandates to advance. If political leaders do not think that it will produce anything, it will be difficult to get those mandates. To use the terms of European football, it is important to recognize the first time you get a yellow card, the second time you get a red card. The process got the yellow card in Copenhagen, and there's no such thing as a second yellow card. Cancun has to deliver the architecture for a final agreement.

It's unclear whether the United States will be able to enact climate legislation by the end of the year in time for the Cancun meeting. What does that mean for the outcome?

If the United States says to China, "We need to be sure you're pulling your weight," it's pretty logical for China to say, "Fair enough, how are you pulling your weight?" Getting U.S. legislation is critical to the United States' international credibility in this process.

Obama has gotten the message down better than anybody else, when you look at what he did last week, providing loan guarantees for renewable-energy projects.

It's hard to imagine how he could have gotten more curveballs in the first two years of his administration, with the economic crisis and the health-care issue. What gives me confidence is there's lots of people with their heart in the right place. I also think he has his brain in the right place.

Where do you think the environmental movement is at this point?

At the end of the day, if the situation is that a significant portion of the people in the environmental movement believe the green [economic] growth story, but an even more significant number of people outside the environmental movement don't believe the green growth story, then it's just not going to happen. Very few governments are going to be willing to run their countries into the ground to save the planet.

What I am hearing more and more out of the private sector is they are willing to help shape the policies -- feed-in tariffs, tax incentives -- to do this. They're saying, "We can help you to design this in a way that works for us."

You got a send-off in Bonn in June from people in the nongovernmental organization community. They sang a song to the tune of "My Favorite Things" that included lines such as "Keeping Al Gore out of the Bella Center" -- where the Copenhagen talks took place. Is that really one of your favorite things?

I certainly never kept Al Gore out in the cold, and I put a lot of effort into getting him in. There are a lot of people who talk over your head [in the climate debate]. He talks right in your face.

I was very touched by the NGO send-off, and it was really heartwarming to get the send-off I did from the small island nations and the smaller developing nations. I think there was a time where some countries did see me, as a Dutchman, as a representative of the industrialized world. At the end of a time like that, getting the send-off I did from the small island nations and the developing nations really gave me the feeling that maybe I did something right.

What do you miss about your old job? And what do you enjoy the most about no longer doing it?

I've been with KPMG for two days. What's really nice is running into people who say yes all the time instead of saying no most of the time. What I do miss is the politics of the process, the pressure of the politics, because there are very significant national politics at stake.

If I can play any kind of role in bringing those two worlds together, and making the case where yes, we can have green economic growth, that would be would be really important.

It would be pretentious to say I'm a marriage broker. But if I can take my understanding of the political essentials and requirements with the business essentials and requirements, and help to get those two aligned instead of opposed, that would be like launching a rocket in this arena.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company