Q&A: Former UN climate chief on its perils

Yvo de Boer discusses global warming, warning that humanity is “hanging by its fingertips”.

Yvo de Boer, seen here in Bali, Indonesia, was the UN's main climate negotiator from 2006-10 [EPA]

Doha, Qatar – A key player driving global climate policy at the UN three years ago, Yvo de Boer is now in the private sector but continues to speak out on, some would argue, the greatest threat facing humanity today.

The Dutchman has engaged climate change issues since 1994, and was the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2006-10 – a time that saw a significant shift towards global recognition of the potential disasters that unmitigated climate change could wreak on the planet.

De Boer was a key figure in establishing the 2 degree Celsius benchmark – the maximum global temperature increase that is now widely agreed to be the tipping point when dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change take hold.

As a keynote speaker at the Global Clean Energy Forum in Doha this week, de Boer said humanity was now “hanging by its fingertips” in the face of climate change, while worldwide political efforts to combat it were “in a coma”.

Yvo de Boer, former United Nations climate chief from 2006-10

Al Jazeera: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] recently released a report saying it is 95 percent certain that human activity is causing rising global temperatures. Will this now silence sceptics, and will it lead politicians to take action?

Yvo de Boer: I think the sceptics have already been silenced, if I compare this report to previous reports released by the IPCC. I didn’t really hear any serious criticism of the science. I think the science is now clear and accepted.

When the politicians embrace it really depends on two things: First of all when we say the financial crisis is finally behind us, because that is certainly preoccupying politicians in industrialised countries. And secondly the question: Can China and the United States begin find common ground on the issue of climate change? And there I think what [US] Secretary of State Kerry has been doing is a very encouraging step in the right direction.

AJ: What was the most frightening aspect of the ICPP report that you saw?

YDB: I think probably for me the most frightening aspect was the fact that we’re getting so frighteningly close to no longer having time to get climate change under control and avoid severe impacts.

I’ve pretty much lost hope that we can avoid serious impacts of climate change. But I do hope over time, over the next decade, we develop enough common sense to avoid consequences that are even greater.

AJ: You’ve recently said a ‘carbon price’ of $150 per ton is the best way to tackle climate change. Will industry allow this and will politicians ever make this happen?

YDB: A carbon price of $150 per ton is what we need over time. As a stepping stone in the interim I think a carbon price at $50 would be good. Whether industry and politicians accept that depends a lot on how widely countries begin to price carbon. The real issue is how do you avoid competitive distortions? How do you avoid expensive action taken in one country, and then economic activity fleeing to another? We really need to ensure that there is a carbon price, but everyone adopts it.

AJ: Is clean energy, renewables and the technology and innovation developing fast enough with the closing climate change window?

YDB: I think clean technology is evolving very fast. Over the past four years, the cost of renewables has fallen seven times. There are massive investments in renewables. The technology is developing and the price is dropping fast. But at the end of the day, renewables will always be part of the energy mix – they are not going to meet all of global energy demand.

AJ: There was a recent report in the journal Science that looked at artic ice melting and methane release. Are you concerned about a massive methane release and runaway global warming caused by this?

YDB: Yes, I am concerned because there is massive melting of permafrost, both in Alaska and in Siberia. That leads to the release of methane, which is an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas. And whereas we are able through industry action and policy to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t really re-freeze the permafrost in time. So that potentially is a runaway impact of climate change that could have very severe consequences.

AJ: In your address in Doha, you mentioned the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and described it as “a disaster”. You also said China and the US got “exactly what they wanted”. What did you mean by that?

YDB: First of all neither of those two countries, I believe, is willing to accept an internationally binding [gas emission] target – and that is not something that came out of Copenhagen.

Secondly, both the United States and China are at the moment primarily focused on developing policy at the national level, within the framework of national realities, rather than having something be imposed on them internationally.

De Boer says humanity is ‘hanging by its fingertips’ [EPA]

Copenhagen set some very important broad targets – for example on a maximum temperature increase – but it did not try to prescribe how countries should contribute to that target through agreed international action.

AJ: You mentioned John Kerry commenting on the importance of the IPCC report when it was released. Do you think this signals greater US commitment to combatting climate change?

YDB: I don’t know what ‘the US’ is. I think certainly President Obama and his administration are very seriously committed to climate change. I think the American people recognise this to be an issue that is very serious and needs to be addressed. I think there are many US states that are actually putting real climate change policies into place. But there is not a unified United States’ position on what needs to be done to address climate change.

AJ: Would you call it insanity to know catastrophe is coming and do nothing about it?

YDB: No, I don’t think it’s insanity, I think it’s reality. We live in a world that is still fundamentally preoccupied with short-term concerns, and is extremely reluctant to make long-term investments to suffer short-term pain for long-term gain.

AJ: The challenges facing humanity are so daunting and so large, for you personally being so close to this issue, do you ever lose hope that we can win this fight against climate change?

YDB: I’m actually pretty close to losing hope that we can maximise temperature increase at 2 degrees. And I’ve pretty much lost hope that we can avoid serious impacts of climate change. But I do hope over time, over the next decade, we develop enough common sense to avoid consequences that are even greater.

Source: Al Jazeera