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No ‘Plan B’ for Copenhagen Climate Summit, U.N. Negotiator Says

September 18, 2009 at 1:35 PM EDT
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Ahead of a U.N. conference on global warming this December in Copenhagen, the organization's top climate negotiator speaks with Margaret Warner about the outlook for a global pact to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
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MARGARET WARNER: When world leaders meet at the U.N. next week, they’ll devote a full day to climate change. Tuesday’s climate change summit is seen as crucial to efforts to forge a new global emissions pact at a U.N.-sponsored conference in Copenhagen in December.

The last treaty, adopted in Kyoto more than a decade ago, bound countries to reduce their emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by the time the agreement expires in 2012. But major polluting nations like China and India weren’t given any targets. And in the U.S., Congress never ratified Kyoto.

President Obama came to office vowing to reduce U.S. emissions. And earlier this summer, the House narrowly passed a bill to cut them 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But a climate change bill in the Senate is stalled, possibly until next year.

Yvo de Boer is the U.N. negotiator who’s trying to put together a deal. He’s in Washington for meetings in advance of the New York summit, and he joins us now.

And, Mr. de Boer, welcome. Thanks for being here.

YVO DE BOER, executive secretary, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do you hope to achieve in New York next week that will improve at least the prospects for getting a deal at Copenhagen?

YVO DE BOER: Well, this is the only meeting that is going to bring together all heads of state and government from countries around the world, major industrialized countries, island nations that may disappear because of climate change, and I hope that they will collectively send a signal that they want Copenhagen to succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, they sent a similar signal around the G-8 meeting in Italy in July, yet the U.S. negotiator and others involved in these talks that you’ve been so involved in say they really aren’t going well, they’re not on pace to get a deal by December. Do you share that view?

YVO DE BOER: Well, I would agree that the negotiations are moving slowly. But part of the reason why no big advances were made in the G-8 is because countries feel more comfortable negotiating climate change in the broader setting of the U.N. with everybody at the table rather than a small group, so that was part of the reason.

'Plan B' for Copenhagen

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Energy Secretary Chu -- that is, of the Obama administration -- said last week that -- he said Copenhagen is not the be all and end all, and we can come back in two to four years, you previously have warned of the danger if there's not a deal at Copenhagen, of losing momentum. Is that shifting now? I mean, are you preparing a sort of Plan B?

YVO DE BOER: No, I'm not preparing a Plan B. I mean, I agree with Mr. Chu that Copenhagen is not going to be the be all and end all of climate change. Scientists have said we need to reduce global emissions by 80 percent, and that's not what we're going to agree in Copenhagen.

But what we must agree in Copenhagen are the initial steps that countries will take in order to put us on a path towards that minus 80 percent. So embarking on this journey in Copenhagen is really important.

MARGARET WARNER: But you're saying it's going to be embarking on the journey, it's not going to be a comprehensive deal?

YVO DE BOER: It's going to be a comprehensive deal in the sense that it needs to be clear what rich countries are going to do to reduce their emissions, how major developing countries like China and India will engage, how money will flow that helps developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. So all of those ingredients need to be in there. But I think targets, commitments will be ratcheted up over time.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it was just, I think, 20 months ago that this huge team of scientists from all over the globe issued these unanimous warnings about the really extreme danger to the planet if global warming continued unabated, and they found that humans at least contribute to it, and everyone seemed to take that very seriously. The head of the panel won the Nobel award.

But yet you're having these difficulties. Is it the same, old rifts between rich and poor countries? Why is this so hard?

YVO DE BOER: The rift between rich and poor is part of it. I think that countries, be they rich or be they poor, want to be sure that every country is engaging according to its capabilities, because if only some countries act on climate change and others don't, you're just going to be shifting jobs and shifting pollution from one country to the other, and that doesn't really help.

MARGARET WARNER: So that brings us to what the U.S. will bring to the table in Copenhagen. As we just said, it appears unlikely that you're going to have a piece of emissions-cutting legislation that's certainly signed before Copenhagen. To what degree is that going to undercut your efforts?

YVO DE BOER: I hope it won't. I mean, President Obama, as part of his election ticket, said, I'm serious about climate change. I want the U.S. to show leadership. I will show leadership, and I want to reach an agreement in Copenhagen.

I think that the international community was incredibly enthused by that position of President Obama. And I've seen many countries respond to that. I've seen China and India dramatically change their position and now offer to also limit the growth of their emissions. Japan has come up with a very ambitious target; so has Europe, not all because of the United States, but certainly President Obama has blown new life into that debate.

And as a consequence of that, I think he has to come to Copenhagen with something ambitious. And I think he can come to Copenhagen with something ambitious, a commitment, a target, without having all the legislation developed in the final detail.

In fact, Japan doesn't have its legislation prepared. Europe doesn't have its legislation prepared. So that wouldn't be so exceptional.

Engaging developing nations

MARGARET WARNER: And you said China, India and Brazil, the big developing countries, have they -- they have been willing to make unilateral steps, but in the past they've been very reluctant to make any binding commitments in a treaty. Are you seeing that change?

YVO DE BOER: I think that depends a lot on how we move on a number of other subjects. For example, will Copenhagen generate significant finance that helps developing countries to engage? But also...

MARGARET WARNER: To adapt to cleaner technologies and grow without the old polluting ones.

YVO DE BOER: Exactly, yes, to put cleaner technologies in place, but also, for example, climate change is causing a lot of tropical diseases to occur in areas where they didn't occur before. How can you help poorer nations put in place health plans to deal with those kinds of issues?

MARGARET WARNER: But let's go back to China, India and Brazil. Are you seeing then -- you think that they would be willing to sign the deal if it was a serious financing commitment on the part of the richer countries?

YVO DE BOER: I think that China and India would be willing to sign a deal, then, yes. I don't actually think China needs anybody's money to engage. I think China is looking for cooperation on technology. The story for smaller developing countries is different, but I see a very general willingness around the world to really get it done in Copenhagen.

Recession's impact on talks

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some of the figures being talked about in terms of financing, helping these poorer countries, are between $100 billion and $200 billion a year. I think you used those figures recently. At this time of the global economic recession, I mean, who is going to be willing to pony up and commit to ponying up that kind of money?

YVO DE BOER: Well, first of all, those figures relate to what will be needed in 2020, 2030, 2040, and a number of years time. What we have at the moment is an urgent need that will help developing countries assess their vulnerability to climate change and then develop the plans to respond to it.

But the most important thing for me really is that spending money on climate change is creating an opportunity. I mean, why do China, Korea, the United States have green growth at the heart of their economic recovery packages? I think because they see this as an opportunity to change direction, to change the nature of economic growth, not just because of climate, but because of issues that relate to energy prices and energy security, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what are the consequences if there is no agreement at Copenhagen?

YVO DE BOER: I think that that would be a serious blow to multilateralism, a serious blow to an international process. I think in a number of countries things would become more difficult.

President Obama is very preoccupied now with health care, which is affecting the climate change debate. Maybe he's worrying about it already, but next year he's going to be concerned about the midterm elections. German Chancellor Merkel has indicated that she might want to take a more conservative partner after the elections.

So I think the -- like with many things in life, the longer we take, the tougher it gets.

MARGARET WARNER: Like many things in life, timing is everything.

YVO DE BOER: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: Yvo de Boer, the U.N. chief climate change negotiator, thank you.

YVO DE BOER: Thank you.