Yvo de Boer Profile

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Troubling times: Yvo de Boer in deep thought

Profile of Yvo de Boer-Executive Secretary UNFCCC

Even when things were going well in the rollercoaster UN climate talks – which was not very often – Yvo de Boer looked glum. Young observers of the final days in the Bali or Copenhagen conferences felt compelled to give him a hug, ministers knew to give him a wide berth, and other diplomats recognised that his job of twisting the arms of negotiators and bashing politicians' heads together to reach agreement was next to impossible.

But if the former Dutch diplomat cut a lonely figure at the UNFCCC, he commanded deep respect for his even-handedness and defence of the grindingly slow, sometimes infuriating UN system of reaching agreement by consensus.

Even when the US and other powerful countries were lining up last year to try to kill off the flawed Kyoto protocol and establish a new agreement with different principles, he staunchly defended it as the only legally constituted model of international commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. "You don't saw off the branch you are sitting on," he said.

His four-year tenure of the UNFCCC lifted climate change from just another international environment issue to one near the top of the global agenda. In that time, he brought the US back into the negotiations but as the stakes grew and Barack Obama and other world leaders became involved, so the differences and mistrust between countries increased.

In the end, De Boer was left exhausted and demoralised by one of the most impossible jobs in the world. He had publicly cried in frustration and exhaustion after the Bali conference in 2007 but the splits and fundamental differences which had opened between blocks of countries before and during the Copenhagen summit proved too much. He leaves the UNFCCC in July with little real hope of legal agreement being reached in 2010.

The loss of his experience as a negotiator could now prove crucial for the climate talks, which are at a critical stage. Formal negotiations are due to restart soon but there is only one formal UN meeting guaranteed before the next global talks an Mexico next November. De Boer will nominally remain in charge until July, but to have any chance of avoiding the talks unravelling his successor will need to be in the wings. Whoever steps in must act quickly to give the world much-needed leadership on climate change as well as to clear up confusion over the legal status of the partial deal reached at December's summit.