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Diplomacy in Action

United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa


Special Briefing
Todd Stern
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
December 13, 2011

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MR. VENTRELL: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. This is Patrick from the Press Office. With us today, we have Special Envoy for Climate Change Mr. Todd Stern. He is going to discuss with you – this call’s on the record – and he’s going to discuss with you the outcomes related to the UN Climate Change Conference which just concluded in South Africa.

So without further ado, I’m going to hand it over to Mr. Stern.

MR. STERN: Okay. Thanks very much. Thanks to everybody who’s on the call. I thought I would just give you a couple of minutes at the top, and then I’m happy to take questions. We thought this was quite a successful conference at the end of the day. We went into it with fundamentally two key objectives. One was to carry forward the key elements of the Cancun agreements by setting up the green fund, by writing the guidelines needed to establish a transparency system for both developed and developing countries, moving forward on the technology center, and so forth. And I think we felt that all of those things were done in a good way.

Second – the second objective was to make sure that any language that was included about a future regime, whether a legally binding regime or not, would be based on what we call parity or symmetry, applying fully to all major players. And at the end of the day in Durban, there was, in fact, an agreement to pursue, in effect, a legal instrument that would apply to all parties and that was, I think, notable. I think it’s the first time that we’ve seen that kind of thing and is, I think, a significant achievement for Durban.

So without further ado, I would be happy to take questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. If you would like to ask a question, please press *, then 1. You’ll be prompted to record your first and last name so that I may announce your question. To withdraw your question from queue, you may press *, then 2. Once again, to ask a question please press *, then 1 now. One moment for our first question, please.

Our first question comes from Shaun Tandon of AFP. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing this call. I just wanted to ask if you had anything to say about the decision by Canada to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Obviously, the U.S. isn’t part of Kyoto, but I wanted to see what you thought about the effects of that and the timing of the decision.

MR. STERN: I really am not going to – I don’t have a comment on that. I think Canada’s obviously a sovereign country and can make its own decision. The U.S. is not, as you know – as you all know, is not in Kyoto, so I don’t – it’s not something that – certainly that we are going to – that we’re going to criticize or take a position on. I think that the – there are obviously a great many countries who are concerned about and keen on there being a second Kyoto period. Canada wasn’t going to be part of the second Kyoto period anyway, but I think I’ll just leave it at that. I think we don’t have any special comment.

QUESTION: Thanks.

OPERATOR: David Biello of Scientific American. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Just wondering if you could give your interpretation of the phrase that kind of seals the deal. The – and I forget the exact wording, but a protocol, a legal outcome, what-have-you, what’s your interpretation of what that language means going forward?

MR. STERN: Well, the language is a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force. And I think that – I think the language is pretty clear that we’re talking about something probably in the nature of a protocol. There are other technical variations on the theme, but I think everybody understands we’re talking about a legal agreement of some sort or another, and I think that the fact that we have all of the developing countries, and in particular, the major developing countries agreeing to do that, is significant.

I might add a couple of other things that are noteworthy in that short agreement, which I guess is – has been – is referred to now as the Durban Platform, but it’s – obviously, it’s applicable to all the parties. It is premised on or it includes the – essentially, the sunsetting of the 2007 Bali Mandate. That’s important to us because Bali has tended to be read by many parties, and in particular, developing country parties, as continuing what I tend to call the firewall between developed and developing countries, as it has come to be understood, or come to be seen in 20 years of climate negotiations. So Bali – we don’t read it that way ourselves, but that’s not so much the point. It has come to be seen as also perpetuating that firewall, so we most certainly did not want any negotiation for a new instrument to take place according to or under the terms of Bali. So the fact that Bali is scheduled to sunset at the end of next year is also important.

So I think we can go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Pilita Clark of Financial Times. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, thanks very much for doing this, Mr. Stern. I wonder if I could ask you a couple of questions about the huddle that occurred on the conference floor just before the agreement was finalized. A number of participants have said that they heard you say, at one point, I believe in response to a request from the Indian negotiators, that there would be some reference to equity or CBDR in the final language. They say they heard you say, “If equity’s in, we’re out,” and I wanted to confirm that that is, in fact, what you said. And I assume that what you meant was that this has already been very much discussed in preceding negotiations and it refers to the firewall you just discussed.

Also, Su Wei, I believe, at one point, suggested that the term “legal vehicle” be used instead of the language we finally got. And I wondered what you made of that, and I believe that, in fact, you and the EU were against it.

And just – if I could just quickly get a supplementary in, could you outline what you see as the next steps going forward to this pact ahead of the 2015 adoption? What sort of discussions do you think will be held in the intersessionals this year on this?

Thank you.

MR. STERN: Thanks a lot, Pilita. Let me take those one at a time.

I don’t remember my exact words in that huddle, but let – but I will tell you what our general orientation was, which is to not load up this short Durban platform agreement with terms or phrases that would be likely read by others to perpetuate – just as you said, to perpetuate that firewall. So it’s not that there’s anything wrong with having – with talking about equity in the context of climate negotiations, and the term appears in the framework convention, and we tend to look at the phrase as calling for fairness to all parties, and we think that’s fine.

But in this context, when we’re talking about setting up a negotiation, the core of which for us, the key element of which for us, was to include all the major players in the same legal system kind of together, we just thought that that would be a distraction that would tend to drive people back into the old paradigm, if you will, and we didn’t want to go there. Whether I said those exact words, I have no idea. I might have, but I – but that’s certainly the idea.

“Legal vehicle” was actually raised as a term. There were a lot of terms getting tossed around in that huddle in the – during the plenary session on Saturday night. And that term was actually raised – it was actually suggested by Ambassador Diseko of South Africa, not by Su Wei. And we did not take any position against it. We didn’t take any position for it or against it. It may well be that the EU didn’t like it, but that was – the U.S. did not – we didn’t speak to it. We were mostly – we were very much in a mode of trying to facilitate this thing, and the actual term that was raised and kind of broke the logjam was a term that we suggested.

QUESTION: That was your lawyer, I think, wasn’t it?

MR. STERN: Sue Biniaz, exactly.

QUESTION: Yep.

MR. STERN: The phrase – well, I think Sue actually raised “outcome with legal force,” and somebody else, and I couldn’t tell you who, suggested the word “agreed outcome,” so it was a little bit of a combination of two people. But the “outcome with legal force” was something that we raised in the first instance.

Next steps, I think it’s going to be an interesting period that will certainly occupy, my guess is, a portion or maybe even a substantial portion of this year to be thinking about what the shape of a new agreement ought to be, understanding that we’re going to be in a whole new ball game now. I mean, we’re – everything that has transpired up until now in the world of legal agreements in climate change have all been focused just on developed countries. So now this is a different ball game. Now when you think about all sorts of questions, what sort of mitigation, what sort of transparency, what sort of accounting system are you talking about, you’ve got to be thinking about it in terms of – in terms that are going to apply more broadly.

So I think that there’s going to be a lot of thinking to do, a lot of kind of talking and discussing and reflecting, and my guess is that’s going to take some period of time. That – there may be many other things that go on as well, but I think that will certainly be part of it, just for people to try to get their arms around what this new thing is going to look like.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Darren Samuelsohn of Politico. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. Hey, Todd.

MR. STERN: Hi.

QUESTION: Can you talk a drop about the legislative or congressional response that you’re going to need? Obviously, you’re going to be now embarking on a negotiation that’s going to take a number of years, but ultimately comes back to the Senate for ratification, it sounds like, by 2020. And just talking to members up here on the Hill yesterday, Senator Lugar didn’t seem that thrilled with what was accomplished in Durban and indicated – he said to me, quote, “The debate here is going to be entirely on the merits as the Senate sees it, regardless of this current agreement, or 2015, or what-have-you.”

You’ve certainly got a big hurdle with the Senate, and I’m just curious, does this change the dynamics in your mind? And just secondly to ask – I mean, you’re going to be negotiating over the next year with a presidential election looming. How does that factor into the work that you’re doing and in the way that other countries perceive the U.S. position?

MR. STERN: So let me address both of those questions, Darren, and thank you. I think – let me take the second one first. I actually don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact. I don’t see – I don’t think anybody sees the actual kind of full-on negotiating phase starting quite yet. I think there was a lot of talk about a period which would be kind of pre-negotiation, and that was – although this is slightly before – it was before my time in my connection with the Kyoto negotiation, because I came into it quite late from the angle of the White House in – because I got into that around July or so of ’97.

But there was evidently a period of a year or a year and a half that was involved in assessments and analyses and various kind of pre-negotiation activities before the real kind of hard negotiations started. And so I don’t think that there’s going to be kind of hard-core negotiation this year. After all, nobody is going to be thinking about what their targets, actions, submissions, whatever they might be with respect to mitigation is going to be in 2020 quite yet. So I don’t think the reality of the presidential election is going to have much effect.

With respect to your first question, look, I guess I think that there will be a – there’ll be a need in this country for energy action, and I think the President has already made clear that he thinks so, which is more to the point, in his State of the Union and in various speeches after that, talking about energy at a – some of the action is – certainly is at the executive level. But in terms of a legislative proposal, he articulated a proposal for a clean energy standard that would move us to 80 percent clean sources for electricity by 2035. Obviously, that would be a big deal, and – but whether it’s that or some variation, I think that this would have been – not just this would have been, this was already put on the agenda, completely independent of Durban. And I think, had Durban come out any which way, that still would have been on the agenda.

So I don’t – actually don’t think that Durban affects that equation that much. I think that the United States is always going to have to be focusing on what we need to be doing for U.S. national interests with respect to driving toward a clean energy future. And if we can get it right here, that’s going to – that is inevitably going to form the foundation of what we’re able to do in any international agreement.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Tim Gardner of Reuters. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for holding this. I know you didn’t want to talk about Canada’s action, but if you would, what is it spell for negotiations on this broader agreement of – that has everyone in it, if Canada is already out? And what if other ones – other countries also say in coming months, years, that they – or coming months that they want to drop out of Kyoto? Does that affect the negotiations but as larger (inaudible)?

MR. STERN: I actually don’t think so. I mean, if you look at the state of affairs with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, you have one major player in at this point out of the various countries that were once in – I mean, obviously, the U.S. was out of it a long time ago. Japan, Canada, Russia have not withdrawn from Kyoto the way Canada – well, I guess I just mentioned Canada, but Russia and Japan have not withdrawn, but on the other hand, they’re not doing the second commitment period. We haven’t heard yet from Australia. I think there’ll be a few smaller players also, European players like Switzerland and Norway, who will go in.

But Kyoto is – I think Kyoto is – it’s fair to say is more the past than the future. I mean, it’s – we have it now, and it’s going to continue now through, I think, 2020. But if you – but if we’re – if the discussion is what’s going to be a new regime that includes everybody, that’s got developed and developing countries in, and how is that going to get structured, I don’t actually think that Canada being in or out of Kyoto is going to really have a big effect on that equation. I think it was important for a great, great many countries that the second period of Kyoto went forward, and I think it was – the fact that it was going forward had everything to do with the negotiation of this Durban Platform. If Kyoto was not going forward, we would not have had the Durban Platform.

So those things, they’re intimately linked, but the EU was the central force there. Canada already had said that it wasn’t going to be part of a second Kyoto, so this is somewhat more of a kind of formal step by the Canadians. And I don’t – I mean, I’m not – again, I’m not commenting pro or con about that particular step, but I don’t actually think it’s going to have a big impact on the shape and – of a new regime and the nature of the new negotiation.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi there. This is a question about the near term, when we’re looking at debates that are going on in individual countries about what’s happening between now and 2020 and we look at, for example, what’s happening with Brazil and their debate about what they’re going to do concerning their policies for deforestation. I was just wondering if there was anything you would say about those kinds of debates, and to what extent countries for the near term will be charting their own future in terms of their commitments, or to what extent you think what happened in Durban is actually going to affect how people – how individual nations might pursue the pledges that they made previously in Copenhagen and Cancun.

MR. STERN: Thanks, Juliet. Well, I think the foundation point before thinking about your – the sort of the last twist on your question is about whether Durban will have any impact on this, but the foundation point is that we are all living under the Cancun agreements, and those are in place now and carry us to 2020, and those – as I’ve – you guys have heard me say a million times, we regard those as very significant, and I think most countries regard – in fact, my guess is all countries, but certainly any of those major ones that I’ve talked to regarding their commitments under Cancun, did the – totally serious. So I think, whether it’s Brazil or any other country, they’re going to look at their Cancun commitments or pledges and try to figure out how to comply with them.

I don’t think the fact that there is a new negotiation that will, in effect, start taking place in parallel with the implementation of Cancun is going to change anybody’s equation about the need to implement their Cancun pledges or what they should be doing in that regard. I mean, it may be that there’ll be some impact, but nothing comes to my mind right away. And there’s obviously a number of elements, apart from mitigation, in – which (inaudible) Cancun, that are going to be really important and that are quite plausibly going to have a big impact, and not just an impact but a – but one would hope a direct presence in a new agreement, and that – but I would include there the regime of transparency that we have now established through guidelines written in Durban, and a green fund which we hope is going to be a successful going concern soon and a quite established concern by 2020, and the same thing with the technology center and network and so forth. So I guess that’s about all I would say on that, Juliet.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Arthur Max of the Associated Press. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hi. I’m – I wonder if you could describe a little bit the dynamic between the U.S. and China in the last few days. You, from the beginning of the last week, had – have made it clear that any agreement would have to involve the developing countries on an unconditional basis, and I believe you also said in your final comments in a plenary that there were a lot of things about the agreement that you weren’t thrilled about. And I’m wondering if – what’s the connection here? How did it come out? What were you not thrilled about? And the whole China connection, if you will.

MR. STERN: Well, the comment about not thrilled about, I was referring to the whole LCA Agreement. And look, I – so that’s a – I don’t know how many pages that came out to be, but it was a lot. And not – I was not referring to the – to this Durban Platform that we’ve been talking about.

And with respect to the LCA Agreement, the long one, I think that that was a bit of a rhetorical comment. I don’t have – I can’t point you to specifics other than that there’s always – you always go in with a set of – with a conception of what you’d like to get done in an ideal world. You never get that entirely. But the reality is that with regard to the important things, things most important to us in the – on the LCA, which is to say the – in effect, the Cancun track, we were, in fact, quite pleased with that outcome.

Dynamic, U.S.-China? I think actually quite good. We – I mean, countries all carry their own interests and their own red lines, their own concerns, in any negotiation, and ours are not the same as the Chinese or – in many respects, and that’s true for many countries. I think that we actually have a very positive and very substantive and very cordial relationship that’s now, for me, three years old with – between the U.S. and China, and I think it was in evidence in Durban. And I think the fact that we all landed on this Durban Platform agreement, where the U.S. and all the so-called basic countries – China, India, Brazil, and South Africa – agreed, it was – is a testament to that.

OPERATOR: Our last question is from Valerie Volcovici from Thomson Reuters.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi.

MR. STERN: Hi.

QUESTION: Just wondering what you thought the turning point was during the two weeks, when I guess you began to see the Durban Platform taking shape.

MR. STERN: Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure if I could nail down a precise turning point. I think that there were a number of dynamics in play, if you will, that were important. I think, for starters, the EU was quite firm in its approach and its view that – or its position that it would only agree to a second commitment period of Kyoto if there was a parallel agreement applying to all parties to do – to negotiate a legal agreement essentially after that.

And I think on the other side of the coin you had developing countries who were passionately interested in having this second commitment period of Kyoto happen. So their great attachment to – and I think at all – all different developing country parties, some of them for different reasons, but I think they all were united in the view that they wanted to have a second commitment period of Kyoto. So that was a – that reality and the EU commitment to getting an agreement for a future legal thing, I think, came together as two very important factors.

I also think that – I wouldn’t underestimate the role that was played by some of the smaller developing countries, such as the island states, who were – who see this, quite understandably, as an existential problem and were, again, passionately committed to much of the same goals that the EU was.

So – and then you had the United States, I think, playing what turned out to be a quite important role by, first of all, working with a lot of the parties on how to find a way to bridge gaps, but also by sticking to our fundamental position, which was that we didn’t oppose a legal agreement. And I would note parenthetically the first major submission that we made in 2009, I think in April, to the UNFCCC on the context of the negotiations was a submission for a new legal protocol. It’s a very symmetrical legal protocol. It calls on – it calls for action by at least all the major players.

So this has been a very, very consistent position that we’ve had. But there wasn’t – it was never in the cards – I mean, I don't know whether the EU would have been inclined in this direction in any event, but it was never possible for the EU to – for this platform to get set up on the basis that it would be the developed countries in some way different from the developing, because we just – we have been emphatically clear from the beginning that we don’t think that’s a good idea.

So I think there were a lot of factors kind of combining to drive things in this direction, and I think you had more flexibility shown by countries on the basics side, the major developing countries, than any of them, frankly, had indicated at any time that I have ever – at least that I’ve ever heard in the past. So you started to have – the ice started to break in the course of the Durban meeting and then kind of – I’m totally mixing my metaphors, but there was momentum that then started to gather. I guess ice doesn’t gather momentum, but in any event you get what I mean. So I don’t – I wouldn’t point to a specific event, but there was that kind of dynamic that was pushing harder and harder in this direction.

OPERATOR: At this time, there are no further questions in queue.

MR. STERN: All right. Well, thank you. Thanks to everybody for coming onto the call and listening, and we’ll stay in touch, I’m sure.



PRN: 2011/2128



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