The United Nations' top climate diplomat will step down July 1 following a raucous four-year term during which world leaders struggled to reach agreement on a new international global warming deal.
Yvo de Boer said today that he plans to leave his post as executive secretary of the Bonn, Germany-based U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change for a job providing consulting services to businesses and universities.
De Boer, 55, was at the center of December's chaotic summit in Copenhagen, which ended in frustration for many world leaders who had hoped to craft a legally binding deal that would put the world on a path to reduce greenhouse gases in line with scientific warnings. Instead, they got a non-binding plan brokered in part by President Obama that saw two dozen of the world's largest global warming polluters pledging to cut emissions and help poor countries cope with climate change.
In an interview with the Associated Press, de Boer said he wasn't leaving the U.N. job because of the outcome in Denmark. But he also acknowledged his disappointment that countries only "noted" the so-called "Copenhagen Accord" but didn't officially adopt it.
"We were about an inch away from a formal agreement," de Boer said. "It was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen. So that was a pity."
De Boer often got into the middle of the crossfire between developed and developing countries battling over terms of a treaty for curbing greenhouse gases. Wealthy nations complained that he favored the views of poorer countries. And he was renowned for making public statements that on occasion got him in trouble with some of the 190-plus countries that participate in the overall process (Greenwire, Sept. 21, 2009).
"I think the conventional role of a secretariat is to shut up and make sure things work," de Boer told E&E last summer. "I said in my interview to [then-U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan, 'If that's what you want, then don't hire me.'"
De Boer played a pivotal role in the U.N. process in elevating the climate debate among world leaders and their top ministers. He urged countries to send their heads of state to the Copenhagen negotiations, which in some ways led to the chaotic nature of the event's closing hours as Obama shared the spotlight with more than 120 other presidents and prime ministers, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Their involvement was welcome, but it also overwhelmed the systems," Dirk Forrister, head of the Natsource consulting firm and a former White House climate official from the Clinton administration, said of the large number of official delegations.
Several longtime observers of the U.N. process said de Boer is partly to blame for the uncertainty that has come in the wake of Copenhagen, as countries are still sifting through whether they are on track toward a legally binding agreement or something else entirely.
"Rightly or wrongly, Yvo is associated in many minds with the perceived failure of Copenhagen and no longer has the confidence of parties," said Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "He probably shares in the blame but is hardly alone. There's plenty to go around."
Diringer added, "Yvo's biggest mistake was helping to set wildly unrealistic expectations for Copenhagen, so that even a modest success would invariably be seen as a failure. He later tried to temper those expectations, but it was too late."
But others came to de Boer's defense, given the agreement reached in Copenhagen, where major emerging economic powerhouses, including China and India, for the first time ever put emission reduction numbers on the table.
"He got big players to play," said Ned Helme, the head of the Center for Clean Air Policy. "He got targets. Who'd have said in August that all these guys would have come forward with these kinds of targets?"
"There's still a big challenge ahead, but Yvo really moved the process through some important developments," said Angela Anderson, program director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, a coalition of environmental groups. "Copenhagen was a globally significant summit that both displayed the intensity of worldwide concern about a warming planet and evidence that nations are ready to act. What Yvo did not accomplish was convincing all nations sign up to a fair, ambitious and binding treaty. He moved the world as far as he could."
Todd Stern, the State Department's special envoy for climate change, said de Boer was "an enormously dedicated leader in the fight against global climate change and has made a major contribution in advancing that effort."
As in the process used to hire de Boer in 2006, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to begin interviews soon for a replacement. Vannina Maestracci, a U.N. spokeswoman, said the goal was to get a new executive secretary in place well ahead of the next major U.N. climate summit scheduled for Nov. 30-Dec. 10 in Cancun, Mexico.
Several longtime observers of the U.N. negotiations said they expect the next executive secretary will be from a developing country -- with de Boer's deputy, Canadian Richard Kinley, filling in if there are any gaps. The two previous U.N. executive secretaries have been from wealthy nations.
"It makes a lot of sense to pick a developing country person ... to build trust," said Helme, who suggested South Africa's former top climate diplomat, Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, who now is the country's leading tourism official.
"It's not a easy job," added Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There's a lot of moving pieces and a lot of country dynamics. You have to be seen as someone who's an honest broker, that's providing leadership to the entire UNFCCC process. You can't be an advocate for one country's views over another, or you won't be an effective secretary."
De Boer said he will be a consultant on climate and sustainability issues for KPMG, a global accounting firm. He also will help several universities. Prior to joining the United Nations, de Boer worked as the lead climate negotiator for the Netherlands and as a Dutch housing minister.
De Boer's departure was expected by many. The United Nations last summer had given him a one-year extension on his term that allowed him to serve through the Copenhagen conference and into 2010. He also had told E&E that he was interested in starting a bed-and-breakfast with his wife in Eijsden, a small farming town in the Netherlands near Belgium and Germany.