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UN climate chief Yvo de Boer to quit

By Julian Rush

Updated on 18 February 2010

Yvo de Boer announces he is to step down from his UN position later this year as hopes of an international climate change deal fade following the failure of talks at Copenhagen. Julian Rush analyses his legacy.

Yvo de Boer (Getty)

The decision of Yvo de Boer to step down from the job as the executive secretary of the UN's climate body (UNFCCC) comes at a critical time for climate negotiations.

The failure to reach agreement in Copenhagen was not a factor in his decision, he has insisted, but it seems hard to believe.

For a UN official, de Boer is a passionate man, not unafraid to let his passion show. He has put his heart and soul into trying to get the world to agree how to limit the impact of climate change. Remember those tears at Bali?

The former deputy director general of the Dutch Environment Ministry has a great line in dry self-deprecation but he has worked extremely hard since he started work at the UNFCCC in September 2006, with, I suspect, less than he'd hoped to show for it.

Mind you, trying to marshal the world's squabbling governments towards a legally-binding climate agreement was always like herding cats.

To those of us who have watched it over the years, it has frankly been slow and painful. On many occasions, only his personal intervention saved the negotiations from collapse.

He is putting a brave face on it, saying "Copenhagen did not provide us with a clear agreement in legal terms, but the political commitment and sense of direction toward a low-emissions world are overwhelming. This calls for new partnerships with the business sector and I now have the chance to help make this happen."

He will join the consultancy group KPMG when he leaves in July.

But he leaves what some might think is a poisoned chalice. 

The wind seems to have gone out of the sails of climate negotiations. Hopes that a deal will finally be struck in Mexico at the end of the year already looked faint; his replacement will have their work cut out.

Some governments are muttering of finding new ways of dealing with the politics of climate change, even perhaps disbanding the UN climate organisation and starting again, or allowing governments to do their own thing voluntarily, with the UN merely a record-keeper.

That would likely leave the world with an ineffective agreement so it will take someone with a strong temperament, charm, guile and firm resolution, infinite patience and not-inconsiderable charisma to take on the job and rescue the UNFCCC and the climate negotiations.

Offers anyone?

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