From the sidelines: Business needs policy clarity

From the sidelines: Business needs policy clarity

‘Businesses ultimately need governments to provide policy clarity and a policy framework. That’s the responsibility that governments need to take,’ says former global climate change supremo Yvo de Boer. Now in his work for KPMG he focuses on companies that are seeking to understand how the world is changing because of certain top concerns, including climate change, energy prices and security, and the scarcity of materials.

Jessica Cheam, Environment Correspondent in the Straits Times (28 November 2010):

For many years, he was at the forefront of United Nations-led climate negotiations, and one of the multilateral body’s most high- profile officials.

In his resolve to advance the talks, he took an outspoken, no-nonsense approach that generally kept government negotiators in line.

A man who is not afraid of showing emotion, he was dubbed The Crying Dutchman after famously bursting into tears in Bali in 2007 out of frustration when the talks were teetering.

Today, Mr Yvo de Boer, 56, is a voice for business, having moved from his UN bureaucrat’s role into the private sector as international audit firm KPMG’s special global adviser for climate change and sustainability.

When the next round of UN climate talks starts tomorrow in Cancun, Mexico, he will be returning to the debate – but he will no longer be in the hot seat.

I recall meeting him several times during press conferences in Copenhagen last year. He often looked glum but never wavered in his determination to see the talks through.

That is partly why the climate circuit was stunned when he announced his resignation as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a post he had held since 2006. He stepped down on July 1 this year to make way for Costa Rica’s Christiana Figueres, who now has the task of seeing the climate deal through.

Speaking to The Sunday Times in a phone interview from Britain, Mr de Boer said he had made the decision to resign even before last year’s talks in Copenhagen.

‘I did hesitate and wonder if it was a good moment to leave or whether I should hang around longer,’ he said.

‘But I had done the job for almost four years and I felt I was ready for something new… The talks had entered a new phase.’

The highly controversial session in Copenhagen was billed as a ‘historic meeting’ as it marked the deadline set by participating nations for inking a global treaty on climate change.

The treaty is aimed at binding nations legally to wean the world from its dependence on fossil fuels and to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for climate change.

Unfortunately, the contentious talks saw developed and developing countries bickering until the very last day. The result was the weak Copenhagen Accord, which was not adopted as an official UN document.

Some pundits even dubbed it ‘Brokenhagen’, but to this, Mr de Boer says: ‘Whatever the criticisms made of the Copenhagen Accord, it did include elements that have taken us into a new era.’

The former Dutch housing official points out that the world has made a notable transition since the Kyoto Protocol – inked in 2007, it bound developed countries to certain emission targets – by moving towards a treaty with a broader approach that engages all nations.

‘There’s also a lot of emphasis on financial flows, both private and public… which has helped to make it more a debate on the economics,’ he adds.

Businesses and governments are responding ‘in their different ways’, he notes. For example, energy and manufacturing companies are realising the value of being ultra-efficient, while chemical and retail companies are increasingly demanding that their suppliers use sustainable sources.

Europe’s target is to reduce its emissions by 20 per cent come 2020, and it might increase the target to 30 per cent. China and India have set goals to reduce their energy use per GDP dollar.

‘All these moves will have an impact… Copenhagen didn’t cause everyone to sit back and relax and think nothing is happening,’ says Mr de Boer, who is married with three children.

When asked what role Singapore, a tiny country that contributes 0.2 per cent to global greenhouse emissions, could play in such international negotiations, he responds: ‘It’s the size of your brain, not the size of your country,that matters.

‘If you come from a very small country and you have good ideas, people will still listen to you.’

Singapore has been a trendsetter, he notes, adding that its delegation at the UN talks had been very active and had helped particularly with regard to the subject of financing.

He says that what has characterised Singapore is its proactive rather than defensive approach.

The Republic has a very intensive economy because of its role as a trading hub and it is limited in its ability to cut emissions because of its geography, but these factors have not prevented it from taking a proactive role, he notes.

And governments play a crucial part in advancing the climate agenda, he says.

The lack of political certainty makes it difficult to assess risks, and that is why a global treaty is important.

‘Businesses ultimately need governments to provide policy clarity and a policy framework. That’s the responsibility that governments need to take,’ he says.

In his work for KPMG during the past five months, Mr de Boer has focused on companies that are seeking to understand how the world is changing because of certain top concerns.

He lists them as climate change, energy prices and security, and the scarcity of materials.

‘Firms are asking how they need to respond and position themselves in order to deal with these global concerns, to put themselves ahead of the curve and to be first movers in the new business environment – that’s very exciting.’

In general, businesses are responding favourably, even though the policy environment does not make it easy for them to do so, he adds.

On the upcoming talks in Cancun, he says that what worries him is the absence of a clear, shared view of what the next round should deliver.

The greatest obstacle, as it was in Copenhagen, would be the wildly differing interests of different nations, he stresses.

If negotiators at Cancun can make practical decisions on technology and finance, and balance their interests, that would be of huge benefit to the process, he says.

‘If we lay the groundwork properly in Cancun, I think you could see a treaty being agreed on a year later in South Africa.’

He warns that letting the process slide would be very dangerous, as there is a flourishing carbon market stemming from the Kyoto deal that needs to see continuity.

But for now, he is enjoying doing ‘constructive work’ with companies that want to pursue green growth opportunities.

On the future, he laughs before saying: ‘I have no plans. I will work another couple of years, and then maybe take on one last, big challenge before retiring, and then I’ll have time to bug my wife.’

Whatever the future holds, he will probably always be remembered as the central architect of a highly complex set of international summits – the largest global cooperative initiative of its kind seen since World War II – and for raising their profile and bringing them into the global mainstream.

Some former colleagues such as Ms Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s commissioner for climate action, have reportedly said that he is ‘not always a perfect diplomat’ but is appreciated for ‘his engagement and his sharp tongue’.

As Greenpeace International’s climate policy director, Mr Martin Kaiser, said earlier this year: ‘Yvo de Boer was the helmsman of the climate process. Going forward, we will also need that type of person.’

MR YVO DE BOER, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change


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