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COP26: Former UN climate chief draws hope from private sector

SNL Image
Former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer during the COP15 summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.
Source: Miguel Villagran/Getty Images News via Getty Images

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Yvo de Boer has been in the room for almost every COP meeting, the United Nations climate change summit held annually since the mid-1990s, serving as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change between 2006 and 2010. He is now president of the board at Gold Standard, a carbon offsetting organization advocating for more robust global emissions accounting. In an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, de Boer spoke about what success might look like at the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, and how technological progress provides "real hope" in the climate crisis. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: How has COP evolved as an instrument to deliver consensus?

Yvo de Boer: The process started out with just a few hundred people in the room and is now generally a meeting involving 25,000 people or more. While this used to be a gathering of mainly environmentalists, it's become a highly charged political process. The focus was initially very much on climate change as a problem and the impact that it would have, and now it's become much more of an economic debate.

It is becoming more complicated. There's a huge array of subcommittees dealing with individual topics. ... Rich countries with large delegations can manage that reasonably well ... but for smaller and poorer countries that are less resourced and maybe have a delegation of one or two people, the process has become almost impossible to follow. So I sometimes have the feeling that it's, if not collapsing, then at least it's creaking and groaning under the weight of its own complexity.

READ: COP26: Tension and angst on eve of critical UN climate summit

What would success look like in Glasgow?

Every CEO is saying that what he or she wants most is predictability. If we could have a stronger focus on interim targets, what needs to happen by 2030, that would be good. Policymakers love talking about 2100 and 2050 because they know for sure that they come after the next election. But most businesspeople have a horizon of maybe two to three years, in the U.S. even shorter.

There needs to be a more robust process created to ensure that the finance [from climate funds and development banks] starts moving in a coherent way. And in that context I really hope we can see progress on robust and responsible market instruments.

SNL Image
De Boer speaking with South African negotiator Alf Willis in 2009.
Source: Miguel Villagran/Getty Images News via Getty Images

There have been high-profile moves on climate action from the likes of China and the U.S. in recent months. What is driving this?

We had the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report ... giving some pretty frightening messages, and the UN assessment of delivery on action, which also painted a pretty worrying picture. ... I'm very enthusiastic about what [U.S. President Joe] Biden is promising to do. I just hope he can get his infrastructure package approved and make the investments [needed] to take the U.S. economy in a different direction.

How important is action by individual countries in corralling others to follow suit?

I take my hope from something different. Over the past five or six years the cost of wind and solar has come down by 70%; I see huge advances in battery technology; I see automobile manufacturers like AB Volvo promising to only make electric cars by 2030. ... Companies that used to be entirely focused on selling as much electricity as possible now advise you to use as little electricity as possible.

We're seeing real hope and real promise, but more through technological advances and new business models than from nation states.

Is the acceleration of environmental, social and governance issues and green finance making a difference?

I think this huge push for [ESG] is good but I wonder if it's a push for the right reason. ... If you're doing it to save the planet, that's great, but if you're doing it to save yourself, you're much more likely to be focused on what is critical for your future.

When I talk to corporates nowadays I don't talk about sustainability or climate all that much. I say, ["Can you grow your business through innovation, become more efficient and improve the value of your brand] by doing things that are climate and sustainability compatible?" ... That's what gets them excited. If I talk to them about ESG, they generally look over at the corporate relations ... or government relations [departments], in the margins of the business where there is no money and no influence.

As the U.K. finalizes its preparations for Glasgow, how important is the host in a successful summit?

Everybody shouldn't be sitting there looking for the U.K. to wave a magic wand. I think it's very important that the U.K. emphasizes to [attendees] that the success is in [the attendees'] hands, not in the hands of the chair.

It's really criminal and irresponsible that after 26 COPs we're only as far as we are. But at the same time this doesn't have to be the COP where every remaining problem needs to be fixed. ... Unfortunately, after this COP will come another one.