Yvo de Boer Announces Resignation

If there was going to be a fall guy for the chaos that was Copenhagen, Yvo de Boer was the natural choice.

As the executive secretary of the U.N. climate secretariat – one whose own profile has risen along with that of the climate issue – Yvo is closely associated in many minds with the perceived failure of Copenhagen. With parties’ confidence in him at an all-time low, it was no surprise that he announced today he would be departing July 1.

The brash Dutchman must indeed share in the blame.  Perhaps his biggest miscalculation was in helping to set wildly unrealistic expectations for Copenhagen, so that even a modest success would invariably be declared a failure.  Though he later tried to temper those expectations, saying a binding treaty would have to wait, it was too late.

But plenty of others must share in the blame – not least, the Danish government, which time and again managed to mismanage the negotiations, often ignoring the secretariat’s advice.

And a fair accounting requires that Yvo be given credit, too, for helping to elevate the climate issue on the international agenda.  He assumed his position when there was an utter void in global leadership on the issue.  He tried filling that void – not always with the greatest finesse – and in so doing, made it harder for governments to hide.

Given the many uncertainties already plaguing the climate process in the wake of Copenhagen – the standing of the Copenhagen Accord, how it’s going to be operationalized, the objectives for COP 16 in Mexico, etc. – Yvo’s departure may not be all that consequential.  On the one hand, it might be good to have stability at the top.  On the other hand, a changing of the guard may help.

One strong likelihood is that his successor will come from a developing country (all three of the executive secretaries to date have come from developed countries).  Beyond that, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will have to consider what role the executive secretary should play going forward, and who best can fill it.

The key challenge at the moment is restoring confidence in the process, and for that, a nimble inside player might serve best.  It’s worth remembering that the role of the secretariat is to support, not direct, an intergovernmental process.  We shouldn’t rely on U.N. bureaucrats to provide the leadership needed to avert climate disaster.  That’s governments’ job.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President, International Strategies