Yvo De Boer: Climate change talks need greater clarity

By Ed King

The former head of the UN Climate talks (UNFCCC) believes confusion over the aim of the negotiations and the meaning of last year’s Durban Platform agreement need to be urgently addressed.

Speaking at a climate communication event hosted by the Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA), Yvo De Boer called for clarity on the goals of the international talks, which resume in Doha on November 26, arguing that without this world leaders and the general public would continue to lose interest in the debate.

De Boer, who now works as KPMG’s Special Global Advisor on Climate Change, said that progressive business had given up waiting for a clear signal from government after the inconclusive Rio+20 summit – preferring to take action unilaterally now.

“Here we are in a process which has gone downhill in my mind at a pace that is absolutely stunning, and the very appropriate question to ask at this time is what we do about it,” he said.

“And also what do we do about that in communication terms, since communication is to my mind a critical part of the solution to the climate change issue.”

De Boer says a lack of clarity and clear ambition is to blame for the stalled climate talks

The Dutchman led the UNFCCC during the troubled Copenhagen conference in 2009, which nearly saw the entire process collapse. He now believes those difficulties were born of an ambiguous text at the Bali climate talks in 2007, and says an equally blurred Durban Platform agreement presents his successor Christiana Figueres with similar problems.

“We’re in a situation at the moment where the mandate is extremely unclear, and that creates endless opportunities I think to confuse, to move the goalposts and to procrastinate,” he said.

“Are we aiming for a target of 2°C or do we want to aim for 1.5°C? Do we need targets, and to whom should they apply? Do we need to set new goals or revise existing ones? Do we need a legally binding treaty, or something in international law?”

He warned that the call in the Durban agreement for a process to ‘develop a protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome’ could and would be interpreted by Parties in a variety of ways with the intention of slowing decision-making to a crawl.

Reflecting on the Bali Action Plan, which is still the focus of intense negotiations at the UNFCCC, De Boer said a desire to see the 2007 talks finish (they ran over by a day) and the need to accommodate all the views on the table led to a text that was deliberately imprecise.

His comments come two weeks after another round of UN climate negotiations concluded, with continued disagreement over the fate of the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) negotiating track, which was created as a result of the Action Plan.

“Part of the reason there was the so-called success in Bali was that people were able to interpret that term ‘agreed outcome’ in very different ways, and they did,” he said.

“I remember many representatives of countries telling me a single decision of the COP (Conference of the Parties) is an agreed outcome, and others would say, no it has to be a treaty.

“I remember my feeling of horror when the so-called Danish text was launched a week before the conference in Copenhagen, and I often think back to all of the damage that text did. If the Bali mandate had been clearer it would have been impossible to table a text like that.”

Clear message

Addressing NGO and climate activist communities, De Boer said it is vital they understand the challenges the UNFCCC faces at the annual conference.

The COP is often approached by those groups as if it is a sporting cup final, adding pressure on negotiators to present a ‘text’ at the end to justify the hours spent in discussions, and sparking anger among activists when nothing tangible is achieved.

De Boer said a “stunning number” of climate negotiators had a “limited understanding” of the issues under discussion, and smaller teams were further hampered by the number of meetings they were required to attend. This could be exacerbated in Doha with  delegates expected to take part in up to seven negotiating tracks.

Admitting that the pace of the negotiations could be sped up, De Boer reserved criticism for those those within the process who “benefit from confusion” despite appearing to be constructive, and who are “are actually working towards failure”.

He named no particular country or bloc, but this echoed recent comments by UK climate change minister Greg Barker, who said anyone wishing to experience the “dark arts of diplomacy” should visit a climate conference.

Negotiators and attending Ministers also had “limited mandates” within the process, De Boer said, suggesting that it was naive for pressure groups to think country delegations could significantly change their own national positions in the space of two weeks.

Climate leadership

Instead he argued pressure must be targeted at the real decision makers. For a deal in 2015 to become reality, De Boer said heads of state must be involved.

In 2009 he spent a long night locked in an “increasingly smelly room” with leaders from China, South Africa, India, Brazil, UK and the USA, which resulted in the Copenhagen Accord.

That experience apparently convinced De Boer that any prospect of a deal in 2015 requires engagement now from leaders, and for that to happen he says they need “a clear, sensible and realistic proposition” rather than a bewildering list of demands from NGOs and pressure groups that are impossible to implement.

Specifically he said this proposition was a new agreement by 2015, writing climate targets into national law and ensuring all countries make a commitment towards a target in international law. Only then could leading politicians return to the arena and play what he argues is a critical role.

He added: “I believe a champion is absolutely essential, and I hope French President Francois Hollande could be that person. Because at the end of the day I do believe politicians will respond to public pressure, if the pressure is clear.”

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