Issue 131 - March 12 - Yvo de Boer to Resign, Impact on Climate Negotiations Debated

New York, March 12, 2010 - Yvo de Boer, who leads the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), announced his resignation on February 18. He has held the position of Executive Secretary since September 2006 and will leave on June 30, two months before the end of his first term.

In response to de Boer's announcement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he regretted de Boer's decision and that de Boer would be "well remembered" and "difficult to replace."

Others expressed concern about his resignation's impact on the ongoing climate change negotiations, which the UNFCCC oversees.

About the Role

The UNFCCC is an international treaty, the "parent" of the legally binding 1997 Kyoto Protocol. States that have signed the UNFCCC are known collectively as the Conference of Parties (COP). As Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, based in Bonn, Germany, de Boer's primary task is to ensure the COP's negotiation of a new international agreement on climate change, a "successor" to the Kyoto Protocol, to take effect in 2012. With its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, the treaty would "shape the way countries power their economies," and thus is very complex to negotiate.

Explanations for Resignation

De Boer's explanation for resigning was that he wished to approach the issue of climate change from the private sector and academia, rather than the intergovernmental setting. According to the UNFCCC's press release, de Boer will join KPMG, a private audit and consulting firm based in the Netherlands, and he also will work with "a number of universities."

De Boer said on February 18, "... while governments provide the necessary policy framework, the real solutions must come from business.... [T]he political commitment and sense of direction toward a low-emissions world ... calls for new partnerships with the business sector and I now have the chance to make this happen." Further, he had already accomplished what he hoped to at UNFCCC: "I took this job to see the launch of negotiations on a global response to climate change.... I feel that's happened.... I think things are on track."

Other reports say that de Boer was "exhausted and frustrated by unrelenting bickering between rich and poor countries," and that he was "very depressed ... for a few weeks" after the end of the most recent meeting of the COP, in Copenhagen in December 2009. The resulting agreement from that conference was non-binding and even that version could not gain consensus.

The significance of this outcome was described by a Brookings Institution analyst: "Copenhagen ... put to bed the notion that there will be a global binding treaty that sets targets." Instead, countries will work to "develop mutual trust that will enhance their willingness to do more rather than less."

Impact on Negotiations

Analysis has varied on the impact of de Boer's resignation on the negotiations leading up to the next UNFCCC conference, in late 2010.

Those arguing that a change in leadership would not substantially affect the negotiations included the UN Secretary-General's climate adviser, Janos Pasztor. He argued that there was enough time for de Boer's successor to prepare for the Mexico conference. The Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC said, "There's certainly no reason his resignation should slow progress.... The key to progress remains with the major countries." One report noted that the NEX index, which tracks the shares of clean energy companies, was "little changed" on the day after de Boer's announcement.

Others thought that a different Executive Secretary may be able to do a better job than de Boer: "I never had the sense that we were dealing with a person of vision, a person who could see the changes that were necessary in the international system to get a climate-change agreement," said one. A German newspaper opined that, in light of "the "disgrace of [the UN's] climate politics," the resignation of "de Boer - chief of the UN's climate secretariat and one of the responsible figures - is overdue." The Copenhagen Accord itself tarnished de Boer for some: "The accord was not the right way to go.... Perhaps Mr. De Boer's departure will open up some space to dump the accord and get the talks back on track." Another analyst wrote, "a new broom may be just what is needed to reinvigorate the talks in the build-up to Mexico," citing "an unmistakable sense of drift" and "ominous" mood surrounding the process.

But many other observers voiced concern about de Boer's departure, for a number of reasons.

Timing: A climate change consultant to governments said, "It is quite bad news he is quitting at this point because the world is in desperate need for a reliable pair of hands to get through this dark period," referring to "assault" by "anti-science deniers, by the Climategate furor and by the US Senate." Die Tageszeitung writes: "This resignation is catastrophic because of its timing: On the one hand the IPCC [UN body providing scientific analysis for climate change policy] is under heavy fire from critics and needs defending. On the other, climate diplomacy after the shock of Copenhagen has started to revive again, with early discussions to probe how to put this process back on track." Moreover, De Boer's successor will have five months to prepare for the Cancún conference (between July and the late-November conference), which some regarded as insufficient time.

Personal Qualities: Greenpeace Canada's concern was that "De Boer was widely liked, respected and fair in his dealings. He'll be hard to replace."

Market impacts: The political process led by the UNFCCC provides the framework for the international carbon market, and its leader's resignation could create uncertainty for that market: "It's a slight knock to the guys buying and selling carbon," said a strategist at IDEAcarbon. An emissions analyst at Barclays Capital added, "It's a sad day for the carbon market."

Signal of doubt in political process: Several commentators suggested that de Boer's resignation sent a negative signal about the viability of a binding agreement on climate change. According to the Washington Post, his departure "deepened" existing pessimism about the talks and appeared as "recognition that the U.N. role had been overtaken by the big emitting nations." For an energy lobbyist, too, de Boer's resignation is a "death knell for the UN process.... It's clear now that you're going to have to solve this issue through agreements with major emitters." A Council on Foreign Relations fellow agreed: "It is becoming increasingly clear that a legally binding treaty is not in the cards for Cancun." Finally, de Boer's choice of what to do next caused concern: "His new job as a consultant can also be understood as a signal that world diplomacy is not the way to win the struggle against climate change."

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