Yvo de Boer: Europe looking for the climate future in the past


This article is part of our special report Efficient EU budget 2014-2020.

SPECIAL REPORT / European politicians are stuck in the past in their search of climate change solutions, the UN's former climate chief told EURACTIV in an interview, adding they need a more "adult understanding" of the tight links between climate, the economy and energy, including energy security.

“I find it fascinating that at this time of economic crisis, Europe seems to be looking for solutions to the future in the past,” he said, pointing the finger at recent political discourse over a manufacturing revival and calls for scrapping environmental regulation.

De Boer served as the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC) and previously as the head of the Dutch government's climate change department.

Now an advisor on sustainability and climate change at professional services firm KPMG, de Boer believes that politicians are stuck in short-term electoral cycles and keep postponing the necessary efforts needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep temperature rises under the 2 degrees celsius.

“We need serious efforts to stick to that target of 85-90% emission reduction by the middle of the century. That’s important, because climate change is important but also because we need to leave some room for developing countries to grow their emissions,” he said, adding every euro saved through energy efficiency was a euro that could be spent on other budget priorities.

The EU currently has three 20% targets for 2020, a CO2 emissions cut, a share of the energy market for renewables, and an improvement in energy efficiency, although the latter is voluntary. But the Commission has pushed forward a debate on the 2030 climate targets and initial proposals mention a potential greenhouse gas emissions-reduction target of 40%. The door is not closed on a 30% target for the proportion of renewables in the 2030 energy mix.

Subsidies, predictability and courage

Asked if the EU's €66 billion of subsidies for the fossil fuel sector should be rebalanced in favour of renewables, which only receive €30 billion yearly, he said dwelling on the public money debate was short-sighted.

“If I talk to CEOs around the world, which is my job now, and I ask them: What do you want most? Their answer is long-term predictability. They don’t say money, subsidies. They say we want to be sure that if you say at least 80% reduction by 2050, that Europe is actually going to stick to that target because then they know that they will need to invest not in coal, not in gas, but mainly in renewables and maybe in nuclear,” he stressed.

However, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies should be done in an intelligent way, the climate expert conceded, saying that policy-makers have a “very stupid way of looking at costs”.

Fossil fuels are so cheap, he said, because the people who burn them do not have to pay the cost of the environmental damage. “The first thing to do is get a better understanding of costs and the cost of fossil fuels and renewable energy will not be that far apart,” he insisted.

According to de Boer, business does not trust politicians because they have the attention span of an electoral cycle.

“The problem with climate is that everybody knows that in the long-term there will be huge benefits, huge savings, the lives of your children will be better, the economy will be more efficient, the air will be cleaner, everything will be wonderful in the long-term. But the long term is after elections,” he said.

Politicians, including the European Commission, were not brave enough to properly impose the polluter pays principle, he said, and that “they are even less brave when it comes to asking you and I to invest in the future of our children."

Climate talks: Marriage or living together?

De Boer argued that an international treaty was necessary so that countries could commit t targets and incur short-term costs for longer term gains.

On Monday (11 November), delegates from all over the world arrived in Warsaw for a two-week climate conference to make progress on talks for a new international climate agreement, to be signed in Paris in 2015. 

At the moment, there is much uncertainty  about the form of such an agreement, whether it would be a protocol or treaty.

"That’s like going out on a date with a very attractive man but you don’t know at the end of the evening if it’s going to be marriage, or living together, or you just get his telephone number. You don’t know what’s going to happen so that makes you rather careful probably in terms of how you enter into the evening.

"It’s the same thing here, if you don’t know if it’s going to be a treaty or a protocol, then it is very difficult to negotiate," he explained.

Nonetheless, de Boer insisted that the Warsaw talks should deliver concrete proposals on what exactly must be agreed in 2015, what is expected from rich countries, from middle-income countries, from poor countries and how are we going to mobilise finance. 

"At the end of the day, I think in Paris in 2015, you will need to consider, discuss finance and commitments, and technology altogether," he concluded.

To read the interview in full, please click here

The world invested almost a billion dollars a day in limiting global warming last year, but the total figure - $359 billion - was slightly down on last year, and barely half the $700 billion per year that the World Economic Forum has said is needed to tackle climate change.

Some 38% of this year's climate investment – $135 billion – came from the public sector, according to the CPI study. It was used to leverage the other 62% of funds from project developers ($102 billion), manufacturers and corporations ($66 billion) and households ($33 billion).

Three-quarters of the climate revenues originated in the same country it was spent in, while the other quarter flowed from the global North to South, and was dominated by public sector funds.

  • 11-22 November: UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Warsaw (COP 19)
  • 3-14 Dec. 2014: COP 20 in Peru
  • 2-13 Dec. 2015: COP 21 in Paris

Subscribe to our newsletters