Yvo de Boer’s resignation as UN climate chief has left developing country advocates both hopeful and uneasy over the future of global warming negotiations that have been thrown into disarray by a rich-poor rift.
The world is losing a tireless advocate for a new UN climate treaty, advocacy groups say, but some also argue that fresh leadership could spur a reversal of the deterioration that has characterized talks lately.
"De Boer is only an executive, and the impact of changing him is similar to a change of an executive in any organization,” said Wael Hmaidan, executive director of Lebanon-based IndyACT who has been involved in the UN climate negotiations since 1999. "It depends on who replaces de Boer. Maybe it will have a positive impact."
The key is finding a person who is "trusted by all," Hmaidan told SolveClimate, adding that "trust is missing in the secretariat by developing countries."
Kim Carstensen, leader of the WWF Global Climate Initiative, suggested that the time for a new climate head has come.
"Yvo de Boer did all that was possible to achieve a fair and binding deal," Carstensen said. "It was the lack of agreement between governments that led to the unsatisfying outcome of the COP [Conference of Parties meeting at Copenhagen]."
Whether that gulf between nations can be bridged remains questionable.
After several years of negotiations led by de Boer, the December summit in Copenhagen produced a bare-minimum deal that was brokered in a backdoor manner by the U.S. and the four BASIC bloc nations: Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The 193 UN member nations only "noted" the three-page document, leaving its ultimate fate unclear.
So far, promises by rich countries associating with the accord total cuts of 13 to 19 percent below 1990 levels, far short of the 25 to 40 percent reduction called for by the UN climate science panel.
With the accord’s legal status in limbo, poorer nations fear the weak deal is the first step toward killing the entire multilateral negotiating process. De Boer’s exit is only deepening that concern.
"De Boer’s resignation must not be seen as an opportunity to strike weak and dangerous climate deals outside of the UN process as we saw in Copenhagen," said Asad Rehman, a climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth International.
The leadership change is also triggering fears of a slowdown in talks this year, just as heightened negotiations are needed.
"De Boer’s leaving may have adverse administrative implications," said Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, a Geneva-based organization with 51 developing nations as its members.
"The developing countries are asking for the UNFCCC talks to resume as soon as possible," Khor told SolveClimate. They want the "more inclusive multilateral process to get back on track after the confusing situation at the end of Copenhagen."
Kyoto Advocate Exits
The greatest long-term worry for developing nations is a climate leader who supports a new treaty based on the Copenhagen Accord. This could kill the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that forces rich nation signatories to cut their greenhouse gas emissions but assigns no obligations to poorer ones.
De Boer has repeatedly downplayed the Copenhagen Accord. He called it a "political letter of intent" and urged powerful nations to stay committed to the two tracks of negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the Kyoto track and the so-called "convention" track, for countries that didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, namely the United States.
In announcing his resignation, effective July 1, de Boer said "it has been a great privilege" working "in support of negotiations under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol."
According to Hmaidan, "the UNFCCC two tracks are the only place where all countries, especially small developing ones, can make their voice heard."
The world is already about 60 to 70 percent of the way to a new deal, courtesy of the "unglamourous" closed-door negotiations that have taken place in the working groups of the two tracks, Khor said, and he urged their continuation.
"We are in the midst of most complex negotiations ever," he added, calling them "10 times more complex" than the WTO negotiations, which have gone on for eight years with no completion. "We are negotiating not only the future of humanity and earth. We are also negotiating the distribution of the future GNP of the world," adding that "it’s very complex."
The office of the UN Secretary General said it is on the hunt for a successor to de Boer, who said he is leaving for climate-related jobs at the consultancy KPMG and in academia.
Developing nations and environmental groups are pressuring the organization to select a leader who backs the poorest nations.
"As for the next executive secretary, we hope the UN secretary-general would carefully follow the established UN rules for selecting a successor who will serve the needs of all parties in a balanced manner," Bernaditas Muller, a senior negotiator from the Philippines, told SolveClimate.
Greenpeace International said that de Boer’s successor "will need to possess the same skills, commitment and cast-iron determination [as de Boer] to ensure the concerns of vulnerable nations are not ridden over by rich polluting countries."
According to Khor, the successor must "have a firm grasp of the climate science, of development and equity issues, and of the legal and negotiating aspects of the Convention and Kyoto Protocol."
The successor must also be able to "stand firm in the face of pressure coming from climate skeptics" and be a "strong guardian of the UNFCCC framework," he said, adding that "he or she will be challenged by forces that want to weaken the UNFCCC process and its principles."
According to Khor and others, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a champion of the Copenhagen Accord, may end up being an adversary for new leadership.
"The UN secretary-general has been intervening in the UNFCCC process in ways that are inconsistent with the multilateral process and which disturbs the negotiations," Khor said.
Meanwhile, there are already hints that rich nations see de Boer’s departure as a chance to completely revamp the struggling UNFCCC.
UK climate secretary Ed Milliband, for instance, said, "We must quickly find a suitable successor, who can oversee the negotiations and reform the UNFCCC to ensure it is up to the massive task of dealing with what are some of the most complex negotiations ever."
(Photo: Paulo Filgueiras/UN Photo)