ECC Platform Library


Yvo de Boer: Heads of state must intervene to fix climate process

26 October, 2018
Yvo de Boer, former UNFCCC Executive Secretary

As governments take stock of the adequacy of the Paris Agreement, willingness to raise the level of ambition will depend significantly on confidence that a variety of promises are being kept. Many of these relate to fundamental commitments around international solidarity. A solidarity of which we are in sore need today, on far too many fronts.


A matter of balance

Every international climate agreement reached has been successful in striking an incredibly delicate balance between enormously divergent views and interests of a wide array of actors, both State and non-State. This holds true for the Climate Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan and the Paris Agreement. Get it wrong, as we did at the Cop in Poznan, and the proposed outcome can be titled a “bag of garbage” and relegated to the dustbin as it actually (and rightly) was by a Chinese delegate.

Two things are central to this balance. First the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, which in a single sentence recognizes that we are all in this together and must all pull our weight (in accordance with our capability and accountability (for climate change)). Second the principles enshrined in Article 4 of the Convention, which lay out the responsibility of rich nations to help their poorer brethren with finance, technology and capacity building.

What negotiators sometimes forget is that these principles are a pre-condition for action and that failure to deliver on them is seen by others as a breach of promise that releases them from the obligation to act (beyond what is in their own interest). So time and again we see two things happen. The first is that countries make their actions explicitly conditional on support being provided. The Paris Agreement is the perfect place to look for many commitments of this kind. The second is that implementation of climate action falters because of the perception that rich nations have not met their “obligations”.

We have seen this happen after Rio, Kyoto and Paris. Each time it becomes more difficult to pick up the pieces and put the process back on track. Each time trust and confidence are harmed. Each time the promises become more circumspect, opaque and cautious. Meanwhile emissions and climate impacts continue to accelerate. As the process to take stock of the Paris agreement and the adequacy of commitments begins, it is critical to examine why we have failed to generate trust between parties so we can learn from the past. It is my firm belief that we have an impressive array of tools at our disposal. Tools that we have failed to put to good use, mainly because of a lack of willingness to show leadership at the highest levels.

Enabling imperatives

In my home country of Holland, I don’t need to look far to find people who sincerely struggle to understand the real potential for climate action. Ministries probably do OK from the perspective of their own silos, but struggle to develop whole of the government solutions (as opposed to overarching promises) that meet the requirements of multiple agendas. Move to regions, cities, corporations and villages and the confusion increases.

Imagine if your economy is still emerging. Basically every form of support promised in the international negotiations is imperative for you to act. A surprisingly long list of countries lack the institutional capacity, finances, policy understanding and technology to act on both mitigation and adaptation. In the case of climate action, finance, technology and capacity are imperatives, not luxuries or bargaining chips.

Good examples hard to find

Truth be told: at the national level there is not a single example of strong economic growth and poverty eradication based on a green or blue model. Every country that is rich today (or on the way to prosperity) achieved this through industrialisation that came with a lot of GHG emissions. So every time we ask a country that still sees poverty eradication as the first priority to embrace a low emissions future, we are basically asking them to embark on an unproven pathway.

My experience with the private sector is that companies (but also governments) hate doing things that are unproven in terms of success. Yes, of course there are countries, companies and cities that have embraced a low-emission future. There is a growing list of companies for which innovation is actually now the core of their growth. But these are often point solutions, when what we actually need is systemic change. When the point is not reducing emissions, but decarbonising accelerated growth, help is hard to find.

A confusing ecosystem

Companies and countries alike do want to act and to support poorer nations to find that greener pathway to poverty eradication and to adapt to the already apparent impacts of climate change. Every climate conference (and most high level political gatherings) lead to some new initiative being launched. Often through the creation of a new institution, more often than not headquartered in an industrialised country. Since on the whole climate finance and overseas aid are not increasing (significantly), this often leads to more fierce competition in what is already a very crowded space. Meanwhile existing institutions see the political interest in climate as a gravy train they need to catch and creatively add the climate label to much of what they do. A lot of this incoherence and confusion has its origins in Western capitals.

I remember from my own days in government that ministries had basically carved-up the international institutional landscape among themselves – environment ministries for UNEP, aid ministries for UNDP, health for WHO and finance for the World Bank and IMF – and battled each-other as committedly abroad as at home. Often in close collaboration with their institutional counterparts in developing nations. Oddly there is a fierce insistence that finance be delivered through existing financial institutions. Put simply, any country seeking coherent support for systemic implementation of its nationally determined commitment, would be hard-pressed to find it.

The UN’s golden opportunity

This type of incoherence can and has been fixed through the UN. Well do I remember a time when the UN development programme, through its resident coordinator, was expected to bring coherence to UN delivery on the ground and to seek alignment of bilateral (and multilateral) support with the national agenda. The UN’s chief executives board, chaired by the secretary-general and open to the World Bank, could be a perfect platform for high level coordination of support for national climate action. After all, the United Nations is something we own collectively. If coherence is as much a challenge in capitals as it is at UN Headquarters, a frequent dialogue between the secretary-general and heads of state is probably also imperative.

Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon took the initiative to organise climate dialogues at the beginning of the annual UN general assembly. If these could be turned into real political guidance instruments, their value would be huge. So perhaps there is an opportunity here not only to provide countries with coherent international support, but also to demonstrate UN reform through effective delivery on one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. Whatever happens, there are two things of which I am firmly convinced. The first that when a realistic and appealing way is shown, the will to act increases. The second is that a sustainable structure requires solid foundations. We cannot build a tower of ambition on a bedrock of broken promises.

Yvo De Boer was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change between 2006 and 2010.


[This article originally appeared on]


ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Climate Diplomacy

Global Issues


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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Environment & Migration

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Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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