The United Nations' top climate official is stepping down, leaving behind deep international divisions over how to forge a new treaty on global climate change.
Dutch diplomat Yvo de Boer announced yesterday that he will step down as executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
His resignation takes effect July 1, just five months before 193 nations gather in Cancun, Mexico, to attempt what they failed to achieve in Copenhagen in December: the creation of a binding treaty leading to dramatic reductions in global greenhouse-gas emissions.
Mr. de Boer - who had worked tirelessly to reach a consensus at Copenhagen - said he was depressed for weeks after the summit ended with a vague, non-binding agreement among major emitters known as the Copenhagen Accord. Angry recriminations resulted from Copenhagen's failure to produce a more substantial document, and the refusal of the participants to unanimously endorse even the more modest pact.
Mr. de Boer's successor - to be appointed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon - will not only have to reinvigorate the effort to achieve a treaty but also he will need to revisit the UN process itself. The requirement for consensus may make it impossible to reach an accord in Mexico, even in the unlikely event that an agreement can be achieved among major emitters. Some critics suggest Mr. de Boer was part of the problem - bringing a rigid, bureaucratic approach to the international talks.
"I never had the sense that we were dealing with a person of vision, a person who could see the changes that were necessary in the international system to get a climate-change agreement," said Robert Page, chairman of Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
He suggested the new UNFCCC executive director will likely have to come from a major developing country - such as Brazil - and be committed to reforming the UN process.
In Denmark, a small group of countries blocked the conference as a whole from adopting the Copenhagen Accord, which had been brokered at the 11th hour by U.S. President Barack Obama. Mexican President Felipe Calderon is urging a reform that would see agreement based on a 75-per-cent majority, rather than unanimity. The Catch-22: The UN requires consensus to change the voting rules.
"As far as the process goes, we're in a lot of trouble," said John Drexhage, climate-change director for the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development and former Canadian negotiator.
"We need to have very realistic expectations for Mexico. I think it would be a mistake to push for a legally binding comprehensive agreement by Mexico. That's just not going to happen with the current state of affairs."
Indeed, Mr. Drexhage said Mr. de Boer's successor faces a convergence of factors that will make it extremely difficult to regain momentum for the international talks.
Public skepticism about the dangers posed by climate change has risen, fuelled by incidents in which a few researchers manipulated data to get desired results, and the inclusion of non-scientific information in the report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Emerging economies like Brazil, South Africa, India and China - the so-called BASIC group - have made clear they will not subject their emission-reduction policies to international verification. Any commitments they have made are conditional on the developed world - notably the United States - taking strong action, and delivering promised financing to the developing world.
Mr. Obama faces major hurdles in getting a climate bill passed in Congress this year, raising questions about his administration's commitment to reduce emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. And as the United States goes, so goes Canada.