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    Yvo de Boer says he will resign his position as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC as of 1 July 2010.


The challenges ahead – Yvo de Boer

Kari Larsen

Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has outlined the challenges lying ahead for combating climate change and securing energy supply.

At the opening session of the European Union Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) on 22-26 March in Brussels, de Boer identified four trends that are on collision course with each other: energy prices and security; climate change; resource scarcity; and lifestyle changes.

Energy prices and security

De Boer warned that we are already close to seeing the first concession wars in terms of energy supply. In not too distant a future, regions like the EU will rely on “a handful of unstable countries” in the Middle East and Africa for the bulk of their oil supply.

Some European countries see nuclear as a relatively clean and secure way of generating power, but de Boer asked what about countries outside the EU. He said he’s sure there are countries that the EU would not be happy to see adopting nuclear.

Although not mentioned by de Boer, the disagreement between the ‘West’ and Iran of nuclear energy springs to mind.

Climate change

Climate change is not only a threat to nature, but also poses an economic risk. De Boer said the cost of protecting against the effects of climate change could cost billions of Euros for The Netherlands alone.

Commenting on the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen to reach a legally binding agreement on climate change, de Boer said that initially he was “deeply depressed”. However, he has since changed his view. “120 heads of state governments took the trouble to come to Copenhagen.”

And although the Copenhagen Accord was not formally adopted, “we’re now in the happy situation that since Copenhagen, 42 industrialised countries have submitted national targets for 2020. 32 developing countries have submitted national action plans. … So what you see is a very significant trend in terms of engagement by both developed and developing countries.”

Resource scarcity

Another challenge for Europe and the world as a whole is resource scarcity. Already we are seeing some metals being contracted by few countries, for example.

"We’re running this planet into the ground."
- Yvo de Boer

Financial resources are also scarce these days. De Boer said he recently spoke to 8 of the biggest pension funds in the world – which he nicknamed the ‘P8’ - about climate change. They control trillions of dollars, but where should they invest? What would be sustainable investments?

Lifestyle changes

Finally, de Boer said we will see some lifestyle changes going forward, but jokingly added that he was not worried about Europeans – that they should turn off the lights or take cold showers – but rather the 5.4 billion people in the world that are aspiring to a ‘Western’ lifestyle. At the moment 1.6bn do not have access to modern energy sources. In India alone, 400 million people do not have access to electricity.

As de Boer pointed out – you cannot really tell them to make cuts in their lifestyles!

“I think we’re in the situation that we’re running this planet into the ground. We fundamentally need to change the structure of the economy – what we produce, how we build houses, what we drive around in, etc.”

He said there will be ‘losers’ when tackling climate change, such as highly polluting and inefficient parts of the economy. However, he added: “I believe there are significant gains to be made in other areas – for example renewable energy technology, electric vehicle technology, in the knowledge parts of the economy, in the service parts of the economy.”

“You have the wealth to pay for change.”
-Yvo de Boer

De Boer pointed to China and Korea, where they are using their economic recovery packages to change the direction of economic growth. “They see the future in new areas, not in past areas,” he said.

EU’s 20% not enough

On that same note, he said that the 20% reduction in emissions embraced by the EU does not represent a step change. “It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think it will catalyse a step change.

“On the other hand, the 80% reduction by 2050, which I think European leaders as early as 2005 were talking about in the European Council, does represent a step change.”

He added: “You can get to 20% without fundamental change, without too much suffering – you can’t get to -80% [in emissions] without fundamental change.”

In a little kick to European leaders, he said: “You have the wealth to pay for change.”


In the briefing later in the day de Boer expanded on the Copenhagen Accord.

“I think many people, including myself, left Copenhagen with a sense of disappointment because it was not possible to come to a final agreement in legal terms.”

He repeated his point above that it was nonetheless important in political terms as 120 heads of states attended, and the efforts made by 42 developed and 32 developing nations following the Copenhagen conference. “We’re seeing the beginning of a trend towards global engagement to limit the growth and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Furthermore: “very significant financial resources were promised … Up to US$30bn in terms of prompt-start financing over the next three years and then US$100bn per year from 2020 onwards [for developing countries].”

There is no formal deadline for mobilising the short-term prompt-start funding. However, de Boer said developing countries are expressing “a strong feeling that those nations that have not met their financial commitments in the past” should now deliver on the US$30bn.

“I hope that a significant proportion of that short-term finance will go to adaption and will go to the poorest countries in the world.

“There are more than 30 least developed countries that have prepared national adaptation plans, and I hope that a significant part of the European funding and other funding will go to the implementation of those adaptation plans.”

"A lot of damage was done in Copenhagen."
- Yvo de Boer

De Boer believes the Copenhagen Accord can be used as a roadmap for re-invigorating the formal negotiations going forwards.

Restoring trust

“The challenge over the coming months is going to be first of all to restore trust in the process, because a lot of damage was done in Copenhagen. Secondly, to develop a common understanding of what can realistically be achieved in Cancun [COP16 in Mexico] at the end of this year, and then to use the extra negotiating time which countries want in order to achieve some very clear goals for Cancun.

“And those goals to my mind should be operational architecture, adaptation, mitigation, technology and finance – an operational architecture on which we can then decide if it needs to be turned into a treaty.”

In order to restore trust, de Boer said industrialised countries must show “real leadership” in terms of ambitious emissions reduction targets. He warned that developing countries will not engage in a serious way without seeing such leadership from developed nations.

In summary, de Boer said the three main challenges for restoring trust are: “Rich country leadership, developing countries’ engagement and the finance to make that possible.”

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