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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How might that happen?

Both the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol say yes, developing countries are also willing to take actions to limit their emissions, but for them to do that, technology, financial resources, and capacity-building have to be provided by rich nations. The critical success factor for me is how you can mobilize finance technology that will allow all countries to engage on this topic. That requires striking a delicate balance between putting in place the money and technology that will allow developing countries to act [and not] falling into the trap of saying this will just cause industries to flee rich countries and go to developing countries and lead to jobs being displaced. Recent studies have shown that the global zeal for biofuels is also contributing to increased carbon emissions. How might biofuels figure into the current discussion about climate change?

In a number of ways. There is a risk that forests will be cut down and replaced by crops that can be used to make biofuels. What you are also seeing is that crops are now being replaced by crops that can be used for biofuels. So there is both the issue that relates to deforestation and there is the whole question of crops for food production and potentially the impact on food security. A big issue is emissions that result from deforestation in developing countries. What policies might help curb these problems?

I think the main thing is to create an economic incentive that's a realistic alternative to deforestation. People on average don't cut down trees because they think they are ugly. They cut down trees because there is an economic advantage to doing that, either by selling the lumber or by planting something where the tree used to stand. It's related to people's survival. Unless you can give the people who are cutting down trees an economic alternative, it's just going to continue. We already have under the Kyoto Protocol market-based mechanisms where people are rewarded for taking action to reduce emissions. Can you design something similar in the context of deforestation? That's one of the challenges people are looking at. Has the fact that the U.S. presidency will be changing hands next year stalled or delayed current negotiations? Are people waiting for a more receptive administration?

I don't think [discussions] will be stalled. One of the reasons for that is that probably there are a couple of issues that are critical to the United States and other industrialized nations. One of those critical issues is the nature of targets that rich countries would be taking on. And the targets are something will we come to at the end of the process when we know what is in the toolbox. In the short term people are focusing more on what instruments can you put in place to ensure that there is actually action. In a sense, we'll be having by fortunate coincidence the discussion on the toolbox while this administration is around, and we'll probably only get around to the discussion on the targets by the time the next administration is in place. Do you see the current crop of candidates—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain—as being more supportive of climate change policy?

Yes. What do they say that you find encouraging?

They are all talking about putting domestic policies in place. They are all talking about a cap-and-trade regime as an efficient way of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. There are probably a couple of tough questions you could still ask all three of them. What would be an example of a "tough question"?

Such as: What kind of commitment on the part of large developing countries like China and India is politically essential for you? That's one question. The second question would be: Are you willing to make money available to help developing countries engage on that topic? And would you also be willing to provide financial support to major countries like China, India, and Brazil? Can you see differences between their policies?

That's a very difficult question, in the sense that Senator McCain is a coauthor of climate change legislation. In a sense, his position on where this country needs to go is a little clearer than the others.