Decarbonisation risks sidetracking Paris pact, says ex-UN climate chief

Fossil fuel phase-out this century is an ‘impressive sound bite’ but could harm chances of an agreement, says Yvo de Boer

By Alex Pashley in Paris

A commitment to phase out coal, oil and gas this century is not vital in a new global warming accord, the UN’s former top climate official has said.

World leaders may be tempted to announce a long-term global carbon-cutting goal when they open a UN summit in Paris on 30 November. Heads of 30 states including China, Brazil and Germany have backed that aspiration.

But that could hinder more than help a fledgling deal by wasting scarce negotiating time on the details, Yvo de Boer said in Paris on Wednesday.

“I personally am not a big fan of long term goals,” the now director of the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute said in an address at think tank IFRI.

“They have a tendency to distract from short term priorities. They open up a host of very complicated negotiations on the formulation of the goal.”

Report: World leaders home in on long-term green goal

Countries have vowed to limit warming to 2C, beyond which scientists warn of catastrophic impacts, though national pledges submitted to the UN overshoot that goal.

Greenhouse gas emissions must peak around 2035, the UN climate science panel says, and fall to zero before 2100.

A fossil fuel phase out is a logical next step, but it’s politically incendiary. The idea muscled its way into the latest UN draft text, but is a mishmash of conflicting sentiments.

Presidents and prime ministers are expected to show up for the first day of the critical Paris summit, to give political impetus to the technical negotiations.

De Boer said he didn’t oppose the concept of a long-term goal, but was wary of the vague statements it attracted.

“It can be an very impressive sound bite for politicians to take away from Paris… My hope is that the leaders don’t agree a long term goal on the first day of the conference, when they’re all invited and then lose interest in the process after the first day.”

The Dutch official, who steered talks from 2006 to 2010, said they should instead prioritise a mechanism to ramp up ambition every five years and hold countries to their promises.

Report: Forget climate pledges for Paris – let’s talk deep decarbonisation

Countries have pushed back on having their pledges scrutinised, but de Boer said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could do the job. Rich countries should also be held to their commitments of financial and technological support for the developing world.

Oliver Geden, a researcher at German think tank SWP, echoed de Boer and said a long term target meant politicians were “exploiting the future for today’s short term political gains”.

Geden pointed out the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol took seven years to be ratified, while approval of its second commitment phase had stalled. A Paris accord is set to take effect from 2020, but that cannot be guaranteed.

A review mechanism would help to keep the pressure on, he argued. Otherwise, countries would be “kicking the can down the road to delay costly decisions.”

Alex Pashley’s travel to Paris and accommodation was paid for by IFRI

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