Yvo de Boer, climate chief of the United Nations for four years, unexpectedly announced his resignation today. Although he officially won’t leave his post until July 1st, it marks another turn for the worse for those hoping to see action on climate policy. De Boer, who led the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali (2007) and more recently in Copenhagen (2009) said, “Copenhagen did not provide us with a clear agreement in legal terms, but the political commitment and sense of direction toward a low-emissions world are overwhelming. This calls for new partnerships with the business sector and I now have the chance to help make this happen.”
Heritage Senior Policy Analyst Ben Lieberman explains just how epic of a failure the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference really was: “To fully appreciate what a step backwards the final Copenhagen accord is, one has to recall the buildup to it. For the last two years, global warming activists and UN officials had circled December 2009 on their calendars as the watershed moment for creating a new carbon-constrained global economy for decades to come. And in the nick of time, they would argue, as the existing targets in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are scheduled to expire in 2012. Furthermore, with the Bush administration gone in 2009, many in the international community felt that the path was clear for the Obama administration to finally include America in binding, verifiable, and enforceable restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.”
It also goes to show just how ill-suited the United Nations is at handling a climate treaty. The vastly competing interests of UN member states make it extremely difficult to reach an agreement. For instance, the Copenhagen conference sought to get developed countries to accept massive economic costs to meet carbon dioxide cuts and provide billions of dollars in wealth transfers to help nations cope with the projected consequences of a changing climate, while simultaneously exempting developing countries (even the large developing country emitters like India and China).. The kicker is that this deal – as bad as it would be for developed countries like the U.S. – would not significantly arrest greenhouse gas emissions.
More egregiously, the U.N. itself had become too invested in the agreement. As noted by Heritage fellow and UN expert Brett Schaefer:
“The U.N. is supposed to be a neutral facilitator, not a decision-making body. The decisions over what commitments nations make should be left to their respective governments — they have to justify them to the citizens who will be affected. In this debate, the U.N. has moved inappropriately beyond serving as bureaucratic “butlers of the process” to full-blown advocates pushing for ever more stringent commitments in the face of countervailing evidence and lack of political support for its suggested actions.”
With UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon selecting the de Boer’s successor, it’s unlikely we’ll see an effort to minimize the U.N.’s role in negotiating climate change treaties. But reversing that trend was unlikely anyway. The best option is to sideline the UN and shift negotiations on efforts to address climate change to a more effective forum of those states that would be expected to shoulder the burden of any proposed efforts and, therefore, would be sure to view those proposals in a proper cost-benefit framework.
As for de Boer, working with businesses may be easier said than done. BP, ConocoPhillips and Caterpillar recently left the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (US CAP), a coalition of business and environmentalists that support legislation to reduce greenhouse gases such as cap and trade. With trillions of dollars on the table and up for grabs, corporations worked hard for a seat at that table in search of corporate welfare at the expense of the consumer. But the recent revelations of flaws in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report as well as the ostensible data corruption and manipulation exposed by leaked emails and documents from East Anglia University’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) have companies jumping off the global warming bandwagon. It’s certainly not going be a cakewalk convincing them to jump back on and willingly cut emissions given the economic cost and faulty science.
Some say de Boer’s resignation will add to the trouble. Agus Purnomo, Indonesia’s special presidential assistant on climate change admitted the resignation “comes at the worst time in the climate change negotiations. His decision will ultimately add to the difficulties we already have in reaching a successful outcome in Mexico.” Hopefully, participating governments take this opportunity to reassess the entire fiasco of UN led negotiations like Copenhagen.