The Washington Times’ Jon Ward interviewed Yvo de Boer, the United Nations’ top global warming negotiator, during a break in the U.S.-organized conference on climate change at the State Department Friday afternoon.
QUESTION: You said in your speech yesterday that this conference could be a success if it met some conditions.
DE BOER: This process. I think it was conceived sensibly as something that’s going to take more time, given the complexity of the issue and the divergence of viewsThe way the administration has presented it is as a process that will last throughout much of 2008, involving a series of meetings focusing on different areas. So this is basically just the beginning, intended to agree on the agenda that needs to be discussed. So actually, nothing is going to bethe only thing that’s likely to be finalized here is the agenda. So it’s a bit like what we’re trying to do in Bali at the end of the year. We’re going to try to finalize an agenda there, too.
Q: Does it ever get frustrating talking about talking?
A: Yes, it gets very frustrating. It’s especially frustrating because in the talking about talking, it becomes very clear that many of these people have a very good understanding of what needs to be done in order to tackle this problem. What’s lacking is the political will to start discussing that in a more formalized way. At the Press Club the other day, I said that I sometimes feel that people have a speaking disorder in this process, that every time they mean to say, “I will,” in this process, what comes out of their mouth is “they should.”
Q: Do you see the U.S. as one of the main ones lacking political will, or is that shared by several countries?
A: I think there is a lack of political will for a number of different reasons. The U.S. in the past has been skeptical on the ability of an encompassing U.N. process to deliver on something as complicated as this, but I think that position is changing. And in fact, I think one of the main intentions of this process is to, in a smaller setting, small in numbers but large in terms of responsibility for the issue, that it might be easier to deliver a contribution to the larger process. But you’ve had that U.S. skepticism on the process in the past, and I think this is a way that the U.S. is seeking to engage in that international process more strongly. Many of the developing countries are very concerned about beginning formal talks because they fear that that process may lead to the imposition of targets on them that would hurt their economic growth without the incentives being delivered that would allow them to grow in a cleaner way. There are other countries that have targets under Kyoto at the moment, like the Russian Federation, which are experiencing very strong economic growth, and in all honesty don’t know if an absolute emission target is somewhere they would like to go again. There are very big interests at stake.
Q: When I talked to [President Bush’s chief environmental adviser] Jim Connnaughton, he represents the U.S. point of view and the European point of view, to put it broadly, as being in disagreement over only about 10 percent of the issues. Then you also hear talk that there seems to be an intractable conflict between caps and the U.S. position, which is no caps, and technology. Do you think the process right now is one of, “We agree on most things,” or do you think there’s still a wide amount of disagreement between those two perspectives?
A: Well, to me, that’s a bit like saying, “I am in full agreement with my wife that she needs a new coat, and that it needs to be warm. The only minor disagreement is whether it should be a $15,000 mink or something else.” Yes, there’s disagreement on a small number of issues, but those issues are very fundamental. There”s a fundamental disagreement on whether mandatory caps, however they’re imposed, are the right way to go. There is a fundamental disagreement on the role that market mechanisms should play, whether there should be trading. There are significant differences of opinionon the types of commitments that developing countries should be asked to take on. Those are the threeyou could say there are only three points of disagreements, or difference of view, but they’re quite significant.
Q: On Kyoto, you talked a little at the Press Club about the fact that some countries have not met their goals, and I wondered if you could characterize whether most countries have met their goals under Kyoto, or most have not. And you also talked about penalties. What are those penalties, and who imposes them?
A: Well, to achieve your Kyoto goals there is still a little over five years to go, because those goals have to be met by the end of 2012. The group of industrialized countries as a whole, and the European Union as a whole, seems to be on track towards meeting its Kyoto targets. But there are within that group countries that are experiencing significant problems because their emissions are way off track. And for those countries it’s a matter of taking extra measures at home, and using trading to buy reductions in other people”s countries. And there are, for Europeans, two mechanisms to keep that under control. First of all, in Europe, what individual countries allocate in terms of emission rights that are in industry, is very much controlled by the European Commission. So that’s the first safety valve: Are countries not over-allocating emissions rights to their industry? And the second is that if you fail to meet your targets under the Kyoto protocol, then you receive a stronger target, one third extra, in the next period, post-Kyoto. That’s assuming that there would a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol. If there isn’t, I don’t know what would happen.
Q: Who ultimately enforces Kyoto?
A: It’s a political enforcement. It’s an international legal instrument. And in the next round the international community would impose a stronger target. It’s not something that you can take to court.
Q: You mentioned earlier in this conversation that you see the U.S. changing its point of view somewhatIs Europe changing its perspective at all as well? Has the Bush administration”s push for their perspective changed any minds, or altered any perspectives in Europe at all?
A: What I’ve heard European countries say very clearly here over the past two days is that they recognize that the carbon market alone cannot solve this problem. So many of the things that the U.S. advocates, like research and development, like pushing technologies into the market, like setting common standards in certain areas they agree that that is also part of the solution. That’s coming out very strongly. You know, I sense very much that the Europeans are trying to develop a better understanding of the U.S. position, and to see how they can accommodate that. But for that, the American position has to be clear, which is why a number of the European countries in this meeting have been saying, “Please come to Bali with a clear position.” Similarly, you see the developing countries trying to explore how they can make further commitments, how they can engage further, to meet the call from industrialized countries, both the U.S. and Europe, but without harming their economic growth and poverty eradication goals. So you do see very constructively trying to understand each other”s positions and seeing how you can work around them.
Q: How much of this whole process has in mind the fact that there will be another president a little over a year from now that will, quite possibly, be a Democrat?
A: What I have always considered to be much more important is the mood in the Senate and the mood in the Congress, because that’s ultimately where the decision to ratify an international treaty or not is taken.