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Former UN Climate Chief: Emissions Targets And Timetables Are Irrelevant

In another clear sign of the steadily unraveling pollution paradigm, Yvo De Boer, the former head of the UN climate negotiations, has acknowledged that the long debate over targets and timetables for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is irrelevant. Asked byBloomberg about emissions reductions targets in the context of the upcoming climate negotiations in Cancun, De Boer replied:

“Discussions about targets have become largely irrelevant in the context of the Copenhagen outcome. I don’t think that we’re going to see a dramatic increase in the level of ambition.”

De Boer was singing a different tune in the run up to last year’s Copenhagen climate negotiations, which ended, predictablywithout a comprehensive and legally binding emissions treaty. In August 2009, de Boer told TIME Magazine that even if the U.S. didn’t show up to Copenhagen with a new climate change law in hand, an ambitious target would be enough to placate the international community:

“The international community is keenly interested in seeing what steps America is making at home to get its emissions under control, but it also wants to see what the Administration says it will do. If the Administration in Copenhagen commits to a target that is good enough for the international community, that will work. It’s up to the U.S. to see how the target will be implemented nationally.”

More than a reflection on the state of the deadlocked climate negotiations, De Boer’s about-face is a stark admission of the inefficacy of the UNFCCC framework that has governed global action on climate change for nearly two decades. That framework, defined by the intractable conflict among nations about who will reduce what amount of emissions by when, failed to adequately confront the scale of the global climate and energy challenge and lacked a clear path to securing the level of investment necessary to truly transform the energy sector.

As my colleague Jesse Jenkins and I wrote last December, without a primary and explicit focus on energy technology investment, the targets and timetables debate is nothing more than political posturing over empty promises:

“The obsession with targets and timetables, both at the national and global level, obscures and diverts attention from the critical and fundamental reality underlying any successful global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A revolutionary transformation of the global energy system requiring trillions of dollars of shared investment in clean energy technology will be necessary to meet the global climate objectives being discussed in Copenhagen.”

Indeed, the International Energy Agency (IEA)–the world’s energy watchdog–estimatesthat keeping carbon dioxide below the atmospheric threshold of 450 parts per million would require additional (above business as usual) investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy technologies of $10.5 trillion by 2030.

The collapse of the UN climate negotiations was followed by the collapse of targets-and-timetables based climate policy in countries like Australia and the United States, where proposed cap and trade policies were similarly detached from technology investment and the hard work of actually transforming the domestic energy sector. Today, the pollution paradigm is everywhere in retreat.

While the lack of climate policy progress is unquestionably bad news, the failure of both the UN climate negotiations and domestic cap and trade policies has opened up new opportunities for progress on our long-stalled climate and energy goals. That progress will be driven primarily by direct public investment in energy technology, not by carbon markets, and will focus explicitly on making clean energy cheap through innovation.

Until we have cheaper and better clean energy technologies, the costs of meeting our climate objectives will continue to be excessively high, stifling political action on climate change and slowing the pace of clean energy adoption.

There are signs that this emerging climate technology consensus is beginning to take root among some previously wedded to the failed policies of the past. The new head of the UN climate negotiations, Christiana Figueres, acknowledged that it is “the rapid evolution of technology” that will enable greater international action to mitigate climate change.

It remains to be seen whether this new-found wisdom will translate into a reorientation of international negotiations away from targets and timetables. But one thing is for sure: without a global focus on clean energy investment and innovation, no amount of Copenhagens or Cancuns will bring the world any closer to climate and clean energy progress.

Breakthrough Institute, 10 September 2010