The U.N. on the State of Climate Change

Q & A: Yvo de Boer discusses progress toward a global treaty.


Yvo De Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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On matters of climate change, April has been a busy month. President Bush last week called on the United States to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions domestically by 2025. Ministers of several of the world's major economies met in Paris to hold climate talks at the behest of the United States. (They criticized Bush's recent speech as "too little, too late.") And for Earth Day today, activists and businesses have already announced plans to help address global warming and other environmental issues. Whole Foods, for instance, will permanently discontinue its use of plastic bags.

The United Nations, meanwhile, is moving ahead with talks of its own, following the historic summit in Bali, Indonesia, this past December, when nearly 200 countries endorsed a road map for climate change. The Bali Action Plan set up conferences in 2008 and 2009, with the ultimate goal of drafting a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The first of those talks took place earlier this month in Bangkok, Thailand. More than 160 nations attended, among them the United States, which has been heavily criticized for refusing to submit to the carbon emissions caps under Kyoto.

Like its Bali predecessor, the five-day Bangkok conference was contentious, and progress toward a new treaty remains slow. The participating nations agreed upon an agenda for future discussions—i.e., what to talk about when and where—but, in doing so, once again delayed debate on rancorous subjects such as emissions caps.

U.S. News recently spoke with Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, to discuss the current state and future direction of climate change negotiations.

The last major climate treaty—the Kyoto Protocol—was completed in 1997. What's different this time around?

One very important difference is that we have a much deeper understanding of what climate change is and what threat it poses. The science is not being called into question anymore—certainly not on the scale it still was in the pre-Kyoto period. So that's one significant difference to the positive. What sometimes keeps me awake at night is that we had two years to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, and we also have two years to agree on whatever is going to be the outcome of Copenhagen [the final meeting, scheduled for 2009]— and that has to be about 10 times as ambitious in order to measure up to what the scientific community is telling us will be necessary. So we are facing a much bigger challenge in a same amount of time. What did you hope to accomplish in Bangkok?

In Bali, we had agreed to a list of items and issues that need to be negotiated. What Bangkok did was decide when which of those items are going to be taken up and in what setting. It really took the Bali outcome to the next level of precision. Some issues were identified that are going to need extra attention—maybe not so much because they are contentious but because they are complicated, because they need to be properly understood. There are certain issues that you can discuss quite well at the beginning of a negotiating process, but others, like the setting of specific targets, is something that is easier done at the end of the process than the beginning. In a general sense, what are the biggest "issues" that need to be resolved to make progress on climate change?

There are two issues that are interrelated. On the one hand, the question: Will rich nations really show the type of leadership required for poor nations to engage? And secondly, can we mobilize the finance and technology that will make it possible for developing countries to engage as well? I think the two are related. This is a global problem that you can only solve through a global response. A number of rich countries, such as the United States and Japan, are resisting proposals that would require them to help finance greenhouse gas reductions in poorer countries.

The controversy is there. In the Convention on Climate Change [passed in 1992], there is a principle which is the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities." What that principle basically tries to express is that although it's the responsibility of all nations to address climate change, different countries have different capabilities and different circumstances that should be factored in. For example, climate change is a relatively recently discovered issue. It comes largely from industrialized activity. Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time, many for more than 100 years. So the problem as we know it at the moment has been largely caused by emissions from industrialized countries, which is one of the reasons why poor countries feel that rich countries should be taking a lead on this.