WARSAW, Poland -- It's been a while since Yvo de Boer has been in the thick of annual climate change negotiations drama. But the former U.N. global warming chief says it's a bit like watching the old soap opera "As the World Turns."
"Each episode is very exciting, but if you don't watch for two years, you haven't missed anything," he said.
To stand next to de Boer in the Warsaw National Stadium, which is the site of this year's climate talks, is to be besieged by fans. Reporters, knowing de Boer is always good for a snappy quote, make a beeline for him from across the room. Environmental activists go in for big hugs. The United Kingdom's climate and energy minister, Greg Barker, stops to shake hands.
Now a global adviser at the consultancy group KPMG after four years leading the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change -- including through the much-maligned Copenhagen, Denmark, summit in 2009 that failed to deliver a treaty -- de Boer has both a insider's and an onlooker's view of the talks.
As he looks ahead to 2015, when nations have agreed to sign a new global agreement in Paris that some are calling a Copenhagen "do-over," he warned that leaders can't make the same mistake twice.
"There were many people after Copenhagen who thought the U.N. was not capable of delivering a solution on climate change, which I thought was unfair because the U.N. is nothing more than a sum of its parts," de Boer said. But, he added, "If there is another perceived failure in 2015, then people will lose confidence in this process."
With three more days of formal negotiations left this year in the Polish capital, diplomats have barely begun to draw the outlines of a 2015 deal. For now, fights between rich and poor nations over funding to help vulnerable countries deal with the impacts of climate change and the creation of a separate compensation fund for unavoidable losses from rising global temperatures are taking center stage.
The dangers of waiting until crunch time
But the deadline for a new agreement that is expected to see all countries -- including the United States and China -- cut significant levels of carbon emissions after 2020 is creeping up fast. And, de Boer said, unless leaders make some tough calls early, they threaten to fall into the same pattern that doomed the Copenhagen summit.
"One of the many problems with Copenhagen was that it wasn't clear what Copenhagen was supposed to deliver," de Boer said. "Now we are in a similar situation."
In a U.N. decision two years ago that set the 2015 deadline, diplomats said the new agreement would be a "protocol, another legal instrument or an agreement with legal force." Narrowing that down and defining the legal nature of the new deal, de Boer said, need to be done early.
Also key before Paris: laying out what types of targets countries of different levels of development will take and defining financing for developing countries. Likening the 2015 summit to a first date, he said "It's important to get the intentions of the evening first. Is there a proposal of marriage expected? Or just an exchange of phone numbers?"
While it is far too soon to tell if dozens of world leaders will descend on Paris as they did in Copenhagen, de Boer said having heads of state in France in 2015 will only serve a purpose if most of the work is already done. That was hardly the case in Denmark, where President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil and others huddled late into the night personally negotiating legalese because negotiators had failed to cut deals early in the process.
"World leaders can play an incredibly important role in resolving two, three or maybe even four sticking points. But not to do the whole job," he said.
In 'wildest dreams,' 2015 won't keep temperature rise below 2 degrees
Currently, the Kyoto Protocol divides countries into categories of rich and poor and calls on only industrialized nations to collectively cut carbon 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. The United States, which is not a party to Kyoto, has proposed a new system in which all countries offer nationally determined targets that are then monitored and verified at an international level.
Environmental groups counter that in such a bottom-up approach, there is no guarantee that the targets that nations offer will keep global temperatures from rising past a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But de Boer said countries are increasingly embracing the notion of offering national commitments written into domestic law. And, he argued, Kyoto was never as top-down as people now seem to think.
"Countries made commitments, and we put them in the Kyoto Protocol," he said. "They happened to add up to 5.2 percent."
Now nearly four years into his retirement from the U.N. climate regime, de Boer said he does not miss it "at all" -- especially what he called "the game-playing in this process."
He contrasted the final night in Copenhagen -- and what he described as the "sincerity in that room" where Obama and about 25 leaders ultimately succeeded in cutting a deal -- with the "endless wrangling" that went on afterward in the negotiating halls, where five countries blocked approval of the Copenhagen Accord.
"I still believe that this process is essential because it can deliver long-term commitments," de Boer said, adding that a 2015 deal will not spell the end of the U.N. climate regime.
Said de Boer, "I do not believe that even in my wildest dreams an agreement in Paris is going to get us to that 2-degree ceiling, so there will be more work down the road."