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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

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.

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