Yvo de Boer: confronting climate change requires a new growth model

For about three years, Yvo de Boer had one of the most important and frustrating jobs in the world: leading the UN’s climate change negotiations.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, he compared the negotiations to a soap opera “where every episode is incredibly exciting but if you don’t watch for two years you don’t miss anything.”

De Boer left the UNFCCC after the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, which didn’t accomplish what he wanted but set the stage (as he describes below) for what’s on the table now: developing countries like China, Brazil and South Africa considering committing to reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

After a stint at the big accounting and assurance firm KPMG (news flash: assurance firms care about climate change because it presents huge risks to corporations, investors and lenders), de Boer recently became head of the Global Green Growth Institute.

The GGGI helps developing countries shift from the growth-at-any-cost philosophy to new economic models that are more guided by concern for the poor and the environment.

Anyone who has visited a developing country knows that de Boer and his colleagues have their work cut out for them. Let’s hope he can look back in four years (the length of his term) and see accomplishments both exciting and transformational (working title for the TV series; Breaking Good).

Last summer and again this spring, De Boer and I discussed (by phone and email) the importance of green growth the opportunities to reach a global agreement on climate change in the negotiations leading up to the pivotal December 2015 Paris meeting.

Jim Hight: The Global Green Growth Institute supports developing and emerging countries to find new pathways to climate-resilient, environmentally sustainable and pro-poor economic growth. What does this have to do with the climate negotiations?

Yvo de Boer: Climate change negotiations are making such slow progress because many countries are still afraid that acting on climate change will be expensive and that it will make them poorer. GGGI helps countries to understand how they can act on global issues such as climate change while serving their national interest with appropriate models of economic growth.

Developing and emerging countries desperately need economic growth. 1.6 billion people are still living less than a dollar a day.

But current economic growth models do not consider adequately the well-being of humankind, so greater emphasis must be placed on finding a different model of economic growth that is more economically, environmentally and socially responsible.

Jim Hight: Do you think concrete progress can be made at the December 2015 Paris negotiations?

Yvo de Boer: I think that asking major emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and South Africa to reduce their emissions in absolute terms starting from 2020 is not a realistic approach. Although China is undoubtedly an economic superpower, its per capita incomes and per capita emissions are still behind the U.S., Europe and Japan.

What would be sensible is to ask developing countries to limit the growth of their emissions in an initial time frame and subsequently begin to reduce them in absolute terms. There’s an important precedent for that, of course, in the Copenhagen Accord. Eighty-five countries accounting for 85% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, made commitments to reducing or limiting their greenhouse gas emissions.

The main challenge we face in the context of the negotiations is: how can we ensure that countries pull their weight? How can we recognize their contribution to the problem and their possible contribution to the solution? We will be able to see fruition at the negotiations if different countries choose to make different commitments.

Those commitments will vary around factors like per capita greenhouse gas emissions, which is a fair reflection of a country’s contribution to the problem, and per capita GDP, which is a fair reflection of the country’s financial ability to act on the problem.

Jim Hight: The Kyoto Protocol included the Clean Development Mechanism, which allowed European GHG emitters to buy credits from emissions-reduction projects in developing countries. CDM is on its way out, and climate negotiators are discussing a new approach called nationally appropriate mitigation actions. How do you think NAMAs will evolve?

Yvo de Boer: My hope would be that developing country action would fall into three segments. The first segment would consist of actions which a country can take on its own. The second would be measures that a country might undertake with the financial support from international organizations including the Green Climate Fund and the World Bank.

The third component could be actions that a country seeks to finance through market-based mechanisms similar to the credit purchases enabled by CDM. Obviously, the discussions around NAMAs haven’t quite got to the level of precision yet.

Jim Hight: China, the world’s largest GHG emitter, is starting seven regional cap and trade programs. What insights do you have about their motivation?

Yvo de Boer: China is taking action across the board on air quality, climate, water quality, soil quality, gridlock in cities and other environmental issues. Its current Five-Year Plan very clearly recognizes the importance of transforming the country’s economy to make it greener, more sustainable and energy efficient.

China would like to follow the path that Japan and other developed countries have to move up the product quality chain. In the context of that, energy efficiency is a major factor. China has serious issues around energy security, especially with regard to the extent that it can continue to rely so heavily on coal for electric power and industrial production.

Then, I ask the question, is nuclear part of the solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Well the answer is yes. Countries like China that have vast amounts of coal cannot reduce emissions dramatically without using nuclear. But there are downsides to using nuclear. One is the safety issue and the other is waste.

China is a leader in wind, solar and battery technology and has major programs in sustainable cities. Fundamentally, the country is changing the direction of economic growth. However, this is something that will take some time to produce benefits. It is crucial to find the right balance between economic, environmental and social ambitions.


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