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The Poznan Problem: How to Save the Climate from the Recession

By Christian Schwägerl

Yvo de Boer, the UN's climate chief, is facing an uphill task at Poznan. The world needs a new treaty on global warming to replace the Kyoto Protocol but many nations are now far more worried about the economic crisis. The prospects of reaching a deal by next year in Copenhagen are already looking slim.

If the carbon dioxide emissions of countries were reflected in the abdominal girth of their populations, Yvo de Boer's work would be much easier. The waistlines of the Indians attending his conference in the Polish city of Poznan would measure only 50 centimeters, while the Americans would boast a girth of a full nine-and-a-half meters. The Egyptians' would have a one-meter and the Germans a five-meter waistline.

There are similar differences, on a per capita basis, when it comes to the consumption of oil, natural gas and coal in the world and, of course, an important waste product of prosperity: greenhouse gases.

Ice sculptures set up by Oxfam outside the UNFCCC conference in Poznan.
DPA

Ice sculptures set up by Oxfam outside the UNFCCC conference in Poznan.

At this week's United Nations Climate Change Conference, the corpulent Americans and Germans would have trouble making their way up to the microphones and squeezing through doorways. And yet, if consumption were indeed reflected in girth, the whole world could see what is in store for mankind. By the middle of the century, world CO2 emissions will have to be reduced to correspond, using this analogy, to an average waste size of about 85 centimeters -- otherwise global warming will become a truly dangerous threat.

The waist-size analogy could also be used to describe the work of de Boer, a Dutch citizen, who is not only in charge of this conference, with its 9,000 attendees, but of the entire worldwide climate protection program. The task facing de Boer, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is to convince the world's decision-makers to slim down.

Eighty-five centimeters corresponds to the annual per capita consumption of a few hundred liters of oil, not just for heating purposes, but for everything else as well: mobility, consumer products and food. For millions of the world's poor, having access to this much energy would be a dream come true. For the wealthy nations, it signifies a combination of going on a strict diet and entering a program of technological fitness training.

In his opening address to launch the two-week conference in Poznan, de Boer said that by the next climate conference, in Copenhagen in 2009, it will be important to have laid a solid foundation for an agreement to "shape and redirect humankind's further development." If this does not occur, he said, the consequences could be devastating: flooded coastal cities, failed harvests and dried-up forests. All of these calamities, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could become reality in this century.

New Reservations About Investing in a Green Future

On Thursday and Friday 150 environment ministers from around the world will be joining their delegations in Poland. At the same time, in Brussels, the EU heads of state and government will decide on a joint climate protection package -- in the midst of the biggest economic crisis of the post-war era. The crisis makes de Boer's mission all the more difficult. As a result of the worldwide economic downturn, the Dutchman is encountering, wherever he turns -- now, of all times -- new reservations about investing in a greener future.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
AFP

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

De Boer is even convinced that a temporary decline in emissions, caused by reduced economic activity in a recession, is dangerous. If climate protection is equated with loss of affluence, the chances of achieving an effective global climate protection agreement will decline. And if that happens, the 83-page draft agreement, currently de Boer's pride and joy, will be worth very little indeed.

In Poznan, de Boer's office presented a first draft detailing what a new global climate protection treaty for the period after 2012 could look like. It consists mainly of lists, most of them contradictory, submitted by the Americans, the Europeans and developing countries.

Although the positions are far apart, the document does contain all the necessary elements, says de Boer: emissions reduction targets, mechanisms to spread efficient technologies around the world and rules designed to reduce CO2 emissions in inexpensive ways. The trick, now, will be to combine the best proposals.

De Boer, a sharp-featured man with a hawk-like gaze, would have good reason to keep himself out of the global poker game over affluence. As a UN official, he could limit himself to empty phrases and leave the bickering up to the politicians. In fact, de Boer himself is now flirting with precisely that role. "I'm just the guy," he insists, "who brings the coffee and sandwiches to all the meetings."

This job description would only be accurate if he had been elevated above the drab masses of bureaucrats because of his good manners and his even better connections. But de Boer is in his position because former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw in de Boer, a civil servant working in the Dutch Environment Ministry at the time, a man of absolute determination, filled with consternation over the dangers facing the climate and capable of keeping a clear head even in the most confusing situations. He also exuded qualities that have since proven to be a secret weapon: openness, self-irony, even vulnerability.

In truth, de Boer is the kind of person who, while holding thousands of strings in his hands during negotiations, is especially good at pulling a few of those strings. He takes direct aim at hidden motives and pleas of conscience, because he sees himself as an official representative of the world's conscience.

De Boer brings a level of authority to the table that even astonishes veterans of the climate negotiations. "He is a perfect diplomat and yet the opposite of a diplomat at the same time," says Jennifer Morgan of E3G, an environmental think tank.

It was partly because of de Boer that the mega-conference in Bali last year ended in a plan of action instead of disaster. He even threatened the ministers attending the event with house arrest. "No one gets out of here," he said, "unless a political response to the scientific conclusions is prepared."

It was only on the last day of the Bali conference that de Boer lost his composure. He broke out in tears on stage after a Chinese delegate accused him of having scheduled two important meetings at the same time. The Chinese official has since disappeared from the picture, while de Boer is given great credit for having stood up under pressure.

Tying Together All the Strings

The walk from the plenary hall to de Boer's conference office leads past displays advertising patent recipes to solve the climate problem, from green electricity for all to the underground sequestration of carbon dioxide. A few steps past the string of save-the-planet solutions, it suddenly becomes quiet and cold in the white neon light. Where de Boer and his strategists convene, it is not nearly as easy to talk one's way past problems.

"In this process," he says, "we must bring together, under one roof, the interests of the major oil-producing countries and the threatened Pacific islands, the affluent nations and those aspiring to join the club."

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The thousands of strings de Boer holds in his hands have now become seriously entangled as a result of the financial and economic crisis.

The rich countries must invest trillions to stabilize the foundations of their economies. The price of oil has plunged, eliminating the incentive to invest in more efficienty-energy technology.

This is precisely why de Boer is not giving up. "I don't think anyone will show the stupidity to focus on the short term and ignore the long-term issue," he said recently -- aiming his comments, presumably, at the world's heads of state.

De Boer believes that the loss of trust between banks and borrowers will also occur in the relationship between industrialized and developing nations. For him, the starting point in all climate negotiations is that the wealthy countries must make up for their historic culpability before countries like India and China will agree to take action.

But de Boer also applies pressure when he is in India. The developing countries cannot leave everything up to the rest of the world, he said -- so clearly, in fact, that the government in New Delhi complained.

In Poznan, de Boer, armed with Dutch pragmatism, is merely attempting to achieve whatever can be with a lame-duck US administration. This includes an international adjustment fund that will enable poor countries to pay for such preventive measures as building levees against flooding.

De Boer can consider it a success that climate protection is now a subject high up on the agendas of the powerful, well beyond Poznan. The larger EU nations are insisting on an effective climate protection package, US President-elect Barack Obama is floating the idea of turning Detroit into a global factory for green cars, and Brazil is introducing a tough new forest protection program.

In late 2009, at the major climate conference in Copenhagen, it will be time for de Boer to tie together all of the strings in his hands.

Is he worried that he could fail?

"I am afraid that we will turn into a second WTO, which continues to go about its business without achieving any results," he said last week. "Then we'll be in trouble."

By Tuesday de Boer sounded less than optimistic that the new treaty would be wrapped up by the end of next year. He told a news conference in Poznan that it was proving difficult to get industrialized and developing countries to reach an agreement on sharing the costs of cutting emissions. "We won't see a fully elaborated, long-term agreement in Copenhagen in 2009. It won't be feasible."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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