National Geographic News
Yvo de Boer listens to questions during a Copenhagen climate change summit.

Yvo de Boer, shown here at last year's climate talks in Copenhagen, served as the United Nations' top climate official for four years before joining the international consulting firm KPMG.

Photograph by Claus Bjorn Larsen, POLFOTO/AP

Marianne Lavelle

National Geographic News

Published November 26, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

With a new round of climate negotiations set to begin in Cancun, Mexico, National Geographic talked with the man who for four years was the public face of the arduous effort to forge an international accord on greenhouse gas emissions—Yvo de Boer.

The Dutch diplomat served as Executive Secretary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2006 until July, when he left to join the international consulting firm KPMG. De Boer, now part of a team that advises businesses around the world on climate change and sustainability, believes countries need to start believing in the green growth model to avoid a repeat collapse of last December’s efforts at Copenhagen, Denmark, to produce a legally binding treaty.

Delegates gathering in the Caribbean coastal resort for two weeks beginning Monday are not expected to make much progress, with a proposed law capping fossil fuel emissions dead in the United States, and developing countries like China unwilling to curb their growth without action from the nation that contributed most to the burden on the earth’s atmosphere. (See Global Footprints Map and “How Prospects Cooled for a U.S. Global Warming Bill.”) Instead, negotiators will focus on climate financial aid, deforestation, and other secondary issues.

De Boer discussed the importance of such steps as the Copenhagen Accord, in which 85 nations have promised to cut emissions or reduce the carbon intensity of their economies, representing more than 80% global coverage in terms of energy-related CO2 emissions. And he explained why he thinks business must be part of the path forward toward international action on climate change.

National Geographic: With no international pact to cut fossil fuel emissions in place, why are businesses interested in your advice on addressing climate change?

De Boer: Businesses are acting because they recognize that the challenges climate change will bring are real, will impact their business model, and that the time to innovate is now. Although there may not be a new international treaty, there is plenty of national legislation either in place or on the way that companies will need to address.

Businesses and governments have begun to look at this issue through a much broader lens. They’re not seeing climate change as a stand-alone issue, but are linking it very much to issues of soaring energy prices, heightened energy security risks, and raw material scarcity in the face of a growing global population.

Even if you take climate change out of the equation, the response to these trends cannot alter much. President Obama’s economic recovery package reflects the desire to change the direction of economic growth to deal with climate change, and the green growth stimulus packages of China and Korea give me the clearest signal of what is to come.

In other words, a broader international agenda is beginning to be aligned, and businesses are thinking ahead.

NG: What would it look like if business took more of a role in the climate negotiations? Some say leaving it to business is dangerous.

De Boer: It’s a government responsibility to provide the correct policy framework and the correct investment perspective for businesses to operate in. Having said that, the International Energy Agency states that 85 percent of the world’s $20 trillion investment in the energy sector over the next 20 years is going to come from the private sector. If that investment is made without clear climate policy in place, it’s going to push emissions up by 50 percent, whereas the scientists say we need to push emissions down by 50 percent by the middle of the century. So you cannot solve this problem without mobilizing and including the private sector.

(Related: "Energy crossroad for Copenhagen climate summit negotiators")

Business is very much at the heart of the solution, but at the same time, the primary responsibility of businesses is, of course, to shareholders. Business leaders by and large have not been elected to meet altruistic goals, so you need both public and private commitment to solve the problem, and each has its own, equally-important role to play.

NG: What was your feeling about Copenhagen, right after those talks, and what is your feeling now about climate negotiations?

De Boer: Immediately after Copenhagen, I was disappointed. But afterward, as the dust settled, those 42 industrialized countries came forward with their targets, and 35 developing countries, including all of the big ones, came forward with their national action plans. And given the scale of the international finance that was mobilized and the nature of the Copenhagen Accord, which, although not a formal document, enjoys almost universal support and addresses many of the key issues that were stuck in the negotiations, I think significant progress was made and we have a very strong roadmap to take the process forward from here on.

(Related: "Dispatches from the Copenhagen Climate Conference")

NG: If you look forward to the talks at Cancun, what are your hopes? Or do you think another kind of process might have better hope of success?

De Boer: Climate change is talked about at the United Nations because it is not just about reducing emissions. If it was, you could simply get the G8 or the G20 together, do a deal on emissions reductions, and go home.

But this method would leave out the 100-plus developing countries that did nothing to cause climate change in the first place. They will be the ones to bear the brunt of the impacts and would like to have at least a little bit of a conversation on how to adapt to the impacts and how they are going to be helped with that. So the reason why the United Nations talks are so complex is because they try to deal with adaptation, mitigation, technology, finance, capacity building and forests, essentially the whole family of climate change action, and that makes it a complicated conversation. This is why it sometimes goes so slowly. It also goes slowly because you have at the table 192 countries with very different needs: oil-producing countries, small island states that are about to disappear, large industrialized countries that want to safeguard their position of economic advantage, emerging developing nations that want to grow their economies and eradicate poverty. So politically, it takes time to build a consensus.

My hope is that gradually, beginning in Cancun, we can shift the focus of climate negotiations toward market-based mechanism solutions - creating an international financial architecture that actually makes it advantageous for countries and companies to engage on this topic.

NG: It is fascinating that so many of the corporations in the United States say they’re in favor of climate change action, yet our political process is not taking us in that direction. Why is that?

De Boer: The reason why the Copenhagen meeting didn’t achieve everything we’d hoped is because many people outside, and several people inside, the environmental domain are still skeptical about the green-growth model. Part of the problem globally is that that the green-growth case has not been made sufficiently convincing. It is very difficult for politicians to show the kind of leadership that’s needed to put the right parameters in place without public backing.

One of the first conversations I had in my previous job was with the Indian minister of the environment who said, ‘Look, the people who elected me into office aren’t worried about climate change. They’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from. Unless I can convince them that their next meal may not come at all—or may come later, but will definitely be more expensive because of climate change—there is no way that I can get them behind me on this agenda.’ So, in other words, until we manage to convincingly make the case that green growth is possible, it will be very difficult to garner the public support and the political courage we need to see.

The most convincing argument is demonstrating that it can be done. At KPMG, we see an increasing number of companies, but also countries, that are proving that it can be done. I do think that as a result of Copenhagen we have moved into a new era, an era of implementation. The time for arguing about 2020 targets is over. We need to take what Copenhagen achieved and start focusing on the practicalities of implementation now.

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