Climate Treaties Like Kyoto Aren't Coming Back: Ex-UN Climate Chief

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

A fossil plant in Paradise, Kentucky. Close

A fossil plant in Paradise, Kentucky.

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Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

A fossil plant in Paradise, Kentucky.

President Barack Obama's newly proposed power plant CO2 rules ignited coal-fired rage in some parts of the U.S. this week. From abroad comes muted applause and relief.

The U.S. announcement could tilt the goal of UN climate change negotiations, away from an "international, legally binding" treaty, to a patchwork of national commitments. Pacts like the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. Senate blocked by a 95-0 vote in 1997, are probably a thing of the past, said former UN climate chief Yvo De Boer. He is now director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul.

De Boer and I spoke last week about the Obama administration's plans and the highly anticipated UN negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015. Preliminary talks are being held in Bonn, beginning today.

Q: Is it still realistic for climate negotiators to want an "international, legally binding" treaty? Was it ever realistic if the U.S. always opposed one?
A: If a country enters into a legally-binding commitment and they back away from it, what do you do? Arrest the prime minister? "Nationally legally-binding" is much stronger. I think we've moved beyond Kyoto-style agreements. Hopefully in Paris we will see countries make ambitious pledges to limit or reduce emissions.
Q: What's the significance of the prosed U.S. power plant rules for the UN negotiations?
A: They're very significant because they can potentially demonstrate how the United States will give meaning to its ambitions. If the U.S. feels that ``internationally legally binding'' has little value, and that the real value lies in legally-binding national commitments, then these regulations can be the way for the U.S. to show leadership.
Q: What's the deal with American Republicans and climate change?
A: I remember George W. Bush at the beginning of his first term being extremely critical of climate change as an issue. I remember Condoleezza Rice joyfully calling the EU ambassadors into her office and saying Kyoto was dead. And by the end of the second term, Bush was saying that climate change was a global issue that requires a global response. So we all have our learning curves and conservatives are not immune to learning.
Q: Do you think people are getting UN climate talks fatigue? The wrangling seems endless.
A: I think they are. I often have the feeling that the climate talks are a lot like those terrible American soap operas where every episode is incredibly exciting but if you don’t watch for 2 years, you don’t miss anything. That's why I think political leaders engaging in the UN Secretary-General's [September] summit, and political leadership in Paris, is so critical.
Q: How important are the U.S. and China to an agreement?
A: Everything revolves around China and the United States. Much of what is agreed in Paris will flow from a U.S.-Sino willingness to engage.
Q: How can organisations like your own, the Global Green Growth Institute, add to the global effort to fight climate change?
A: What the GGGI does is help countries to assess where climate policy makes sense, and where it doesn't, and how they can turn that understanding into real policies and programs, that they can then go out and look for financing for.
Q: What ways do you see for countries to increase ambition to tackle climate change pre-2020?
A: Increasing pre-2020 ambition is incredibly difficult. Most countries are just beginning to emerge from the economic crisis. Money is tight in many parts of the world and often environmental policy is seen as making money tighter.

Morales covers climate change and renewable energy for Bloomberg News in London.

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