Yvo de Boer: Heads of state must intervene to fix climate process

Comment: Former UN climate chief says trust underpinning global negotiations can only be restored at the highest political level

In Paris in 2015, heads of state were "successful in striking an incredibly delicate balance between enormously divergent views". (Photo: Commons)

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This year, efforts to push all nations to do more to fight climate change will depend on an increasingly uncommon resource: trust.

As governments take stock of the adequacy of the Paris Agreement, willingness to raise the level of ambition will depend significantly on confidence that a variety of promises are being kept. Many of these relate to fundamental commitments around international solidarity. A solidarity of which we are in sore need today, on far too many fronts.

A matter of balance

Every international climate agreement reached has been successful in striking an incredibly delicate balance between enormously divergent views and interests of a wide array of actors, both State and non-State. This holds true for the Climate Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan and the Paris Agreement.

Get it wrong, as we did at the Cop in Poznan, and the proposed outcome can be titled a “bag of garbage” and relegated to the dustbin as it actually (and rightly) was by a Chinese delegate. Two things are central to this balance.

First the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, which in a single sentence recognizes that we are all in this together and must all pull our weight (in accordance with our capability and accountability (for climate change)). Second the principles enshrined in Article 4 of the Convention, which lay out the responsibility of rich nations to help their poorer brethren with finance, technology and capacity building.

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What negotiators sometimes forget is that these principles are a pre-condition for action and that failure to deliver on them is seen by others as a breach of promise that releases them from the obligation to act (beyond what is in their own interest). So time and again we see two things happen.

The first is that countries make their actions explicitly conditional on support being provided. The Paris Agreement is the perfect place to look for many commitments of this kind. The second is that implementation of climate action falters because of the perception that rich nations have not met their “obligations”. We have seen this happen after Rio, Kyoto and Paris. Each time it becomes more difficult to pick up the pieces and put the process back on track. Each time trust and confidence are harmed. Each time the promises become more circumspect, opaque and cautious. Meanwhile emissions and climate impacts continue to accelerate.

As the process to take stock of the Paris agreement and the adequacy of commitments begins, it is critical to examine why we have failed to generate trust between parties so we can learn from the past. It is my firm belief that we have an impressive array of tools at our disposal. Tools that we have failed to put to good use, mainly because of a lack of willingness to show leadership at the highest levels.

Enabling imperatives

In my home country of Holland, I don’t need to look far to find people who sincerely struggle to understand the real potential for climate action. Ministries probably do OK from the perspective of their own silos, but struggle to develop whole of the government solutions (as opposed to overarching promises) that meet the requirements of multiple agendas. Move to regions, cities, corporations and villages and the confusion increases.

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Imagine if your economy is still emerging. Basically every form of support promised in the international negotiations is imperative for you to act. A surprisingly long list of countries lack the institutional capacity, finances, policy understanding and technology to act on both mitigation and adaptation. In the case of climate action, finance, technology and capacity are imperatives, not luxuries or bargaining chips.

Good examples hard to find

Truth be told: at the national level there is not a single example of strong economic growth and poverty eradication based on a green or blue model. Every country that is rich today (or on the way to prosperity) achieved this through industrialisation that came with a lot of GHG emissions. So every time we ask a country that still sees poverty eradication as the first priority to embrace a low emissions future, we are basically asking them to embark on an unproven pathway.

My experience with the private sector is that companies (but also governments) hate doing things that are unproven in terms of success. Yes, of course there are countries, companies and cities that have embraced a low-emission future. There is a growing list of companies for which innovation is actually now the core of their growth. But these are often point solutions, when what we actually need is systemic change. When the point is not reducing emissions, but decarbonising accelerated growth, help is hard to find.

A confusing ecosystem

Companies and countries alike do want to act and to support poorer nations to find that greener pathway to poverty eradication and to adapt to the already apparent impacts of climate change. Every climate conference (and most high level political gatherings) lead to some new initiative being launched. Often through the creation of a new institution, more often than not headquartered in an industrialised country. Since on the whole climate finance and overseas aid are not increasing (significantly), this often leads to more fierce competition in what is already a very crowded space. Meanwhile existing institutions see the political interest in climate as a gravy train they need to catch and creatively add the climate label to much of what they do.

A lot of this incoherence and confusion has its origins in Western capitals. I remember from my own days in government that ministries had basically carved-up the international institutional landscape among themselves – environment ministries for UNEP, aid ministries for UNDP, health for WHO and finance for the World Bank and IMF – and battled each-other as committedly abroad as at home.

Often in close collaboration with their institutional counterparts in developing nations. Oddly there is a fierce insistence that finance be delivered through existing financial institutions. Put simply, any country seeking coherent support for systemic implementation of its nationally determined commitment, would be hard-pressed to find it.

The UN’s golden opportunity

This type of incoherence can and has been fixed through the UN. Well do I remember a time when the UN development programme, through its resident coordinator, was expected to bring coherence to UN delivery on the ground and to seek alignment of bilateral (and multilateral) support with the national agenda. The UN’s chief executives board, chaired by the secretary-general and open to the World Bank, could be a perfect platform for high level coordination of support for national climate action. After all, the United Nations is something we own collectively.

If coherence is as much a challenge in capitals as it is at UN Headquarters, a frequent dialogue between the secretary-general and heads of state is probably also imperative. Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon took the initiative to organise climate dialogues at the beginning of the annual UN general assembly. If these could be turned into real political guidance instruments, their value would be huge. So perhaps there is an opportunity here not only to provide countries with coherent international support, but also to demonstrate UN reform through effective delivery on one of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

Whatever happens, there are two things of which I am firmly convinced. The first that when a realistic and appealing way is shown, the will to act increases. The second is that a sustainable structure requires solid foundations. We cannot build a tower of ambition on a bedrock of broken promises.

Yvo De Boer was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change between 2006 and 2010.

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