His colleagues call him the "Flying Dutchman" because of all the time Yvo de Boer spends in the air, traveling from one world capital to another as he tries to stitch together a global deal to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and possibly save the world. As executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), De Boer is the U.N.'s point man for the ongoing global effort to plan a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. (See pictures of our fragile planet.)
The deadline for a new treaty is coming up fast: at the U.N. climate summit that will be held in Copenhagen at the end of the year. Though a much more climate-friendly Administration has just taken power in Washington, the main conflicts that have held up talks in the past including the division of responsibility between China and the U.S., the two biggest carbon emitters in the world remain deep. De Boer spoke to TIME in New York City just a few hours before he was to be back in the air:
You were just in Washington. Can you give me a sense of what the new Administration and Congress are expecting on climate negotiations this year?
What struck me across the board was this huge enthusiasm to get moving on the topic. It's very clear that it's very near the top of the political agenda, if not at the top. The Obama Administration is committed to putting an ambitious domestic-policy package in place. The new President has asked Congress and the Senate to come up with cap-and-trade legislation. They want to show leadership at the national level, engage in the international process, work toward an agreement in Copenhagen and reach out to developing countries to ensure they engage as well. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)
The conventional wisdom is that with everything else on the government's plate, we're unlikely to see carbon cap-and-trade legislation passed in Congress before the Copenhagen summit at the end of the year. How important is it that something be in place by then?
I'd agree that legislation is not going to be passed by Copenhagen, but it will be well advanced by then. 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.
Do you worry about a repeat of the Kyoto Protocol, in which U.S. negotiators signed onto ambitious carbon-cutting targets only to have them repudiated by the Senate at home?
I don't see that happening again. At that time, there was almost a complete disconnect between the Administration and the Senate. This time around, I don't know if Senator [John] Kerry and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton are on the phone with each other every day, but I have the impression they work together very closely and that Kerry is going to help make sure that whatever is agreed to at Copenhagen can get through the Senate.
Is Copenhagen still an "all or nothing" deadline? Or is there wiggle room if the world fails to agree on a new treaty?
You have to do it in Copenhagen. There is tremendous political momentum internationally to come to an agreement, and if you let that slip, the momentum and enthusiasm will gradually dissipate and things will become more difficult. But having said that, I'm not under the illusion that every final little detail of how the agreement will work in practice will be finalized in Copenhagen. A certain amount of engineering has to be done.
Has that momentum been dented by the ongoing global recession?
I don't think the enthusiasm has been dented. In fact, a lot of countries, including this one, are mainstreaming climate and energy in their recovery packages. Obama does that in improving the electrical grid to put more renewable energy in place, and by helping Detroit build the hybrids of tomorrow rather than the relics of yesteryear. But clearly this is a difficult time to mobilize the financial resources for international cooperation, and that poses a challenge. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)
How are you managing the expectations for Copenhagen? Do you worry that if expectations remain low, nations could go into the meeting willing to accept insufficiently low emissions targets, or even failure?
Yes, I think that it's dangerous to hold on to the prospect that you can go into overtime and postpone an agreement. I think that's dangerous because it's not true. It's not true in the sense that things will be a lot more difficult after Copenhagen than before Copenhagen.
What's your life like now as you prepare the way for Copenhagen?
I don't think I've got a life! I do an incredible amount of traveling, about three-quarters of my life. The rest of the time, I'm back at the O.K. Corral [at UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn] to make sure I know what the hell is going on and that we're all working in the same direction.
There are those who say climate change is primarily a question of technology that we need to change the way we use energy, and only research and development will do that, not U.N. mandates. Why is the UNFCCC process important?
It's important because you have to drive change. Automakers will only begin to look for low-emissions technology if they think the government is likely to regulate toward low-emissions technology. There has to be a sense of urgency out there. We still live in a world where the cost of pollution is not yet part of the price, where you can, as a factory, emit unlimited greenhouse gases without having to pay for the environmental consequences. Unless we begin to change that, there is no incentive to switch to more renewable energy and energy efficiency. Technology doesn't happen by itself.
You're closer to these negotiations than anyone else. Do you remain optimistic about the ability of the world to come to grips with climate change?
Yes, because I see a political willingness to support the Copenhagen process and a growing public concern that is driving that political momentum. That makes me confident things will happen. Hopefully quickly.