Todd Stern’s First Official Foray into the Climate Negotiations

Countdown to CopenhagenWhile Todd Stern, the US Special Climate Envoy, has been actively discussing international global warming issues since his appointment, as I discussed here and here, he hasn't done that in front of all 180 plus countries that make up the UN negotiations.

Well that has changed as he has just made his first formal remarks to the UN negotiating group at the meeting in Bonn (that I previewed here).

His remarks provide a strong signal of President Obama's commitment to reengage the US in international negotiations (full remarks are available here).  Or as he put it:

"...I want to say on behalf of President Obama and his entire team that we are very glad to be back, we want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us" [emphasis added].

And this simple statement was enough to get a very loud applause from all countries.  This shows just how much this group was waiting for the US to shift its position and be active in getting a solution to global warming.

He didn't outline definitive positions that the US will be seeking in the Copenhagen agreement.  But he did provide some hints as he outlined "five building blocks" that can establish a foundation for a strong agreement in Copenhagen.  I won't cover them all, but the most important ones (in my view).

Long-range vision that is guided by the science.  We need a long-term vision, with multiple milestones along the way.  Solving global warming is a long-term issue that will require concerted effort over many decades.  But simply having a long-term vision is not enough as we know.  We need to also deliver near-term action (e.g., a cap on emissions) to spur emissions reductions, drive technology innovation, and push investment. 

"Slow (or no) start and crash finish" was essentially the strategy of the past US Administration-take no action today, but big action in the very distant future (way after they are out of office).  We know that isn't sufficient and Todd is reflecting the shift in US position. 

And he is also hinting at the need to focus both on the effort that is being done by 2020, but also the effort in 2025, 2030, 2035, and so on.  Most of the US climate legislation that has been proposed to date (and proposals from groups like USCAP, the "National Call to Action", and others) includes declining annual emissions limits through 2050.  Or as I said elsewhere: 

"It's hard to turn a big ship around, but it would show we are serious about our commitments to cut emissions from the medium to the long term."

A global response, with truly significant actions by all major economies.  He is suggesting that to be successful this effort will require emissions reductions from all major economies, in particular:

"Countries that are the most responsible for past carbon emissions and countries that are on track to be most responsible for future emissions must join together."

So, which countries is he inferring?  I would wager that he is saying:

  • Developed countries -- The developed countries are largely responsible for the historic accumulation of the pollution that is causing global warming.  For example, the developed countries are roughly responsible for 75% of cumulative CO2 emissions from energy since 1850 (source: World Resources Institute, Climate Analysis Indicator Tool).
  • Major emerging economies -- It isn't clear which countries he is referring to, but I would guess that it includes such countries as Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, and others.  Some of these countries account for a moderate amount of the historic accumulation of emissions, while most have projected growth that is significant.  Many of these countries have already provided strong signals of their willingness to undertake action to reduce their emissions (as I've discussed for Brazil, China, Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea).

Contributing "significant funds" to support developing countries.  As I've mentioned before, this is a crucial element to help ensure a strong agreement in Copenhagen.  The US and other developed countries will need to develop a significant performance-based incentive package that can encourage greater emissions reductions in the energy sector and deforestation.  And they'll need a package which supports adaptation in the most vulnerable countries.

So Todd is providing a signal that the Obama Administration will be supporting the development of this incentive package with Members of Congress to ensure that the US is bringing forward this key building block for the Copenhagen agreement.

The first applause for the US...when they actually spoke.   Nobody I've talked to can remember a time when the US actually got such a loud applause for an intervention.  The US got a loud applause at the climate negotiations in Bali, but it was when they didn't speak-when they didn't come forward to block the consensus position.

So, we've had the first tangible example in the international negotiations of the change in US position on getting a strong agreement.  I'll savor the moment for a minute...

Ok that has passed.  Now we need to get back to the hard work of getting all the pieces to fit together so that we have a strong commitment from the world in Copenhagen.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Director, International program

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