UN climate chief resigns

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), steps down, effective July 1.

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    Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has resigned, effective July 1.
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The head of the UN body tasked with hammering out an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and therefore curb their effect on Earth’s climate, is stepping down.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since September 2006, announced his resignation Thursday. It will become effective July 1.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” he said in a statement. “But I believe the time is ripe for me to take on a new challenge, working on climate and sustainability with the private sector and academia.” Mr. De Boer will join KPMG, a consultancy group, as global advisor on climate and sustainability.

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De Boer’s resignation wasn’t a surprise to many familiar with the UNFCCC process, and especially those who attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15) this past December.

For many agitating for an international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, the COP15 meeting fell far short. “Copenhagen took a personal and physical toll on him,” says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington.

Experts in international climate policy say that the leaking of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit — dubbed ClimateGate — and criticism of some of the science included in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessment had no bearing on De Boer’s resignation.

The IPCC deals with the science of human-caused climate change which, despite recent criticism, is still considered by the vast majority of scientists to be convincing and robust. The UNFCCC, on the other hand, is — or is supposed to be — a political agreement between nations to curb greenhouse gas emissions for the benefit of all.

Many observers say that De Boer is a hard-working, dedicated, and competent bureaucrat thrust into a vexing situation.

“He’s done a very good job in an almost impossible situation,” says David Victor, a professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of International Relations. “But the head is only as strong as the member governments will let him be. And the member governments so far don't really have a very real game plan.”

Some 120 world leaders attended the UNFCCC Copenhagen meeting in December, where the lack of concrete progress frustrated many.

Toward the end of the until-then gridlocked meeting, the largest greenhouse gas emitters agreed on emissions reduction goals, with US President Barack Obama leading the way. But those agreements were in no way binding.

Although he denies that he was frustrated by Copenhagen, De Boer has expressed disappointment in its outcome. "Copenhagen wasn't what I had hoped it would be," he told The Associated Press. "We were about an inch away from a formal agreement. It was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen."

De Boer’s resignation comes at a time when many question whether the UNFCCC is the most effective place to wrangle a climate deal. Increasingly, the UNFCCC seems to be too large and too ungainly an organization to negotiate binding international agreements, says Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Mass., who adds that Its continued relevancy may well depend on De Boer’s successor.

“Some inspired leadership may be required,” he says. Otherwise, the UNFCCC will likely be supplanted by smaller, leaner organizations, such as the G20, he adds.

Dr. Victor of UC San Diego agrees. He adds the G8 and the Major Economies Forum to the list of likely arenas for negotiating an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. “Lots of folks agree that something smaller and more focused is needed,” he says. “But nobody has a clear idea yet what that’s going to be.

De Boer’s replacement will probably hail from the so-called “global south” — the developing world – speculates Mr. Schmit of the NRDC. The rift between developed countries – which are responsible for the bulk of the increase of greenhouse gases so far – and developing countries – which are responsible for fewer gases so far but have much to gain by industrializing and increasing their emissions – proved to be a major stumbling block at the Copenhagen meeting.

“Having a representative from the ‘south’ as head will give a symbolic signal that it's not just a ‘north’ initiative,” he says. 

The next UN climate meeting is scheduled to take place in Cancun, Mexico, in late November and early December.

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