UN Climate Executive Secretary Resigns: His Legacy and Where We Go Next

Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has just announced his resignation.  So this is sparking two questions: where are we after his four year tenure and where do we head from here?  Well here are my thoughts.

I talked to him when he took the job and he didn’t undertake this difficult job so he could be a life-long UN career guy.  When Yvo took the job he only did it because he wanted to help move the world forward in efforts to solving global warming.   Remember he took the job at the end of the Bush Administration’s tenure when US climate policy was non-existent and as a result the international negotiations weren’t really progressing.  And he took the reins at a time where we were still arguing over whether or not developing countries would take action to reduce their emissions.

So yes he is leaving after the Copenhagen Summit, which some view as a failure but has several key foundations for international efforts that are critical (see here and here).  But what did he accomplish?

He sought to raise the international visibility and the decision-making of global warming policy to the highest-level in governments around the world. On both fronts he succeeded. Global warming is a top international agenda in all key countries, over 120 heads of government attended Copenhagen, and 60 countries representing over 80% of the world's emissions are taking concrete actions to reduce their emissions. These are all the key building blocks necessary for solving global warming and didn't exist before his tenure.  So let’s look at them a little deeper.

Global Warming is a Top International Agenda.  Only a couple of years ago we struggled to get world leaders to discuss global warming every time they met and there were many countries where the head of government probably only peripherally knew about global warming.  Now when world leaders meet (or talk on the phone), they almost always discuss global warming and the steps that countries need to take.  Just think about how many news articles you saw last year around “non-climate” meetings where some snippet of global warming news came out as a result of world leaders discussing it.  Or think of the reports of bilateral meetings between key countries and you’ll probably remember some specific mention to global warming.  Unheard of just a few years back.

Heads of Government from Over 120 Countries Were Engaged in Copenhagen.  We always knew that to solve this challenge internationally would require critical decisions from the head of government in key countries.  After all, global warming is an issue that cuts across all aspects of a country’s economy (so it can’t just be the environment ministry actively engaged).  So there are decisions that only the “top dog” in the country can make.  In Copenhagen we had over 120 heads of government in attendance and many of them weren’t just there for a photo-op.  They were rolling up their sleeves, hashing out differences, and making tough decisions necessary to move us forward (as I discussed here).  Unimaginable just a few years back.

Countries Representing Over 80% of the World’s Emissions are Taking Concrete Steps.  Sixty countries representing the vast majority of the world’s emissions have now committed to take specific actions to reduce their emissions (as I discussed here).  That was doubtful just a few months back and some almost take it for granted how big of a shift that was.

What does this all mean for international efforts?  Is Yvo leaving the death-knell for international efforts?  Of course it isn’t the death-knell.  How can the whole system fall apart with the departure of one person, when 60 heads of government have formally committed to take action and over 100 countries have said that they want to “associate with” the Copenhagen Accord (as tracked here) – which basically means: we want to continue to address global warming internationally.  The climate skeptics will attempt to use this as another arrow in their imaginary quiver.  But international efforts to address global warming will continue (key countries have said so in their letters to the UN, available here).  And key countries will still implement policies and programs to reduce their emissions (you can track them here with us).  So I expect no change in the fundamental elements of international efforts – whether or not key countries take specific actions to reduce their pollution.

But even before Yvo’s announcement there were some changes likely to occur in how the UN process unfolds.  But those are just the process aspects.  It would be like saying that a train (which has already been operating for years, is still moving forward, and has the tracks laid out) can no longer run because a new engineer is taking over.  A new engineer will now take over the UN climate negotiations, but its customers (countries) are still demanding that the train get to its destination (concrete actions to reduce emissions from key countries).  The system isn’t broken and the whole thing isn’t being sent to the scrap heap.  There will just be a new voice over the intercom.  It won’t have a Dutch accent, but I guarantee it will still say: “next stop, what actions is your country doing to reduce its global warming pollution?”