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Diplomacy in Action

Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

Special Briefing
Todd Stern
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
June 19, 2012


SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: Hi everybody and welcome. I'm just going to make a few quick opening remarks. And we are obviously still in the middle of this overall process. We did finish today on a so-called ad ref basis, an agreement among this level, the negotiating level of the conference on the text that has been under discussion for quite some time now.

First of all, I would like to thank the Brazilians for hosting this conference and for the enormous amount of work that they have done. I said in the plenary today, and I mean it, the Brazilian diplomatic team is an extraordinarily talented group. I figured that out in 1997 at my first international conference. They were good then, and they are even better now. And I've had the pleasure to work and privilege of working with them in a lot of contexts now over the last several years. And even when it is tough, they are great people to work with.

And just one other preliminary point, which is that sustainable development means a lot to the United States. The President and Secretary Clinton elevated development to one of the three pillars of U.S. national security policy, along with diplomacy and defense. It has been an important issue. We've put a lot of time, effort and money into it. And we care a lot about getting sustainable development right. And we do believe that sustainable development is really nothing more than development itself in the 21st century at a time when the pressure on resources, on food and water, and oceans, and many other things just becomes greater and greater with growing economies and growing population.

I think the outcome that we finish today will help advance goals in this area. It is a negotiated outcome, a negotiated document with a lot of different views from a lot of different players. So, it obviously isn’t everything to everybody. I think everybody here — I think Minister Patriota mentioned this — everybody had things they were more pleased about and less pleased about, and certainly some things could have been improved, but I think it was a good strong step forward.

We have done some important things institutionally, including significantly strengthening UNEP in the UN system, also establishing a new high-level forum on sustainable development in the UN in New York focusing on a variety of ways to manage our vital natural resources more effectively and efficiently. And I think all of these things will not in any sense by themselves-but we hope push in a direction where sustainable development proceeds and we more and more have the ability, as was first discussed in the 1987 Brundtland Report, to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. And that is a nice kind of summary of what sustainable development is all about.

Just one other brief comment. I've been focusing on negotiations along with my team. While we've been doing that, there has been a heck of a lot of other stuff going on in Rio. This conference is about much more than the negotiated text. We have seen the emergence of new public-private partnerships like the Corporate Sustainability Forum showcasing private sector innovation. There have been all sorts of gatherings of civil society, private sector leaders. There have been sustainable development dialogues, which I saw occasionally on the screens when I was walking from one building to the next, and I kind of wished that I could be in one or two of those. There has been a lot going on. There is a lot that is going to continue to go on the next few days, and while I am not the best spokesman to talk about all of those things since I've been on the negotiating front, I think they're terribly important and it looks to me quite impressive. So I'll stop there and take questions.

QUESTION: It's Barbara from CNN. If this is so important to the United States, where is President Obama and is he coming?

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: It is important to the United States, and we are going to be represented by Secretary Clinton. There are many states that are being represented by their leaders and many states that are being represented at a level comparable with the Secretary of State. Our Secretary of State-we have the advantage of having a Secretary of State who is-anybody who is a Secretary of State is a high-level person-but she happens to be somebody who is a world figure in her own right so I think the United States is well represented. And President Obama, along with any number of other leaders, has not been able to come.

QUESTION: Murray Griffin from BNA. I was wondering if you could just explain how this document fits into the high-level segment. Do they just deliberate on this document and possibly amend it, or do they sort of note it and then discuss the related issues?

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: It's a good question. I believe this document is done. And I believe that that’s the intention of our Brazilian hosts, the Brazilian Presidency of this conference. And I think that's the ordinary course for a conference like this. There is a negotiating process, which gets handled by negotiators. Of course, that process started many months ago and went through various so-called PrepCom sessions, and then finished here today. So I think that the Brazilians have no plan or intention to let the document open up. And I think there is a very good reason for that, which is that everybody has things that they really don’t like in the document in one way or another, and once-I think this is a thread that once you start pulling on it, it unravels quickly. And I don't mean that especially about this process. It's just the way these things go. I mean, I've seen that in other circumstances as well. So, I do not-I think that the leaders are going to come, they are going to all do any number of things. They are going to speak at the plenary and express their views and commitment, and this document will need to be formally agreed to or approved in the high-level segment, presumably Friday. But I do not think there is any intention to open it.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Fernanda Godoy from O Globo, Rio de Janeiro. I'd like to ask you about your assessment of the leadership exercised by Brazil. Some European countries are criticizing the way that the document was very diluted in its content to be approved this morning. What’s your view on this?

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: I just didn't hear one thing. What was diluted? I just didn't hear what you said.

QUESTION: The content of the document.

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: Well, you know, I actually thought that the leadership of the conference was exceptional. And I don't say that because I thought that everything was so great for the United States. I mean, I think this was like any of these big negotiations. You know, I've been involved in any number of them on the climate change side, and they are never easy and people all have-they come at these things quite understandably with different national perspectives, different objectives. That's the way it works. So it's always a compromise. Frankly, it's always difficult to make progress. It just always is. And when you can make some progress, that’s good. And I think we have here. But I think that the-I think that is really, really difficult to manage such an unruly group of players as the world's countries — that's just the way it is — and Minister Patriota and his team, Luis Figueiredo and Andre do Lago and others, were just extraordinarily skillful. I really do. I thought that they did an exceptional job.

QUESTION: Thanks very much, Mr. Stern. Richard Black from the BBC. There is one specific thing I just wanted to ask you about in the document. “We reiterate the need to work collectively to prevent — and I stress the word prevent — further ocean acidification.” You know, as far as I am aware, scientifically there is no way to prevent further ocean acidification other than to turn off carbon dioxide emissions. So I wonder when you'll be doing that.

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: Well, you know, it is a good question, and I think that it is a positive thing in this document that there was a strong commitment on the importance of enhancing international cooperation on this issue. It's a really important issue and it does relate to carbon. There are-I mean, there is a whole, as you know, a whole set of efforts going on at national levels in all the major countries to reduce CO2 emissions that, at the international level, obviously, all works through the UNFCCC, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and I could go on at more length if you wanted me to about that process, but I think that it is a good thing to shine the spotlight and call for a strong commitment. I think it is another reason, among many other reasons, why we need to reduce CO2 emissions. We in the U.S. and many other countries around the world are working on that. We made some quite, I think, positive progress over the last, really over the last three years. It was bumpy at first in Copenhagen, but it was a start. And I think that we've made some good progress in Cancun and then again in Durban on some concrete things that will be going on over the next number of years. And then in Durban also agreed that all countries would negotiate a new legal agreement of some kind that would take it, that would go into effect in the post-2020 period involving all countries. I think those are all positive steps and we just have to keep moving.

QUESTION: Hi, I am Brad Brooks with the Associated Press. Special Envoy, you mentioned that it is always a compromise, it's always difficult to make progress in these talks. And you also mentioned the mayors’ group, the corporate sustainability group. Is there not a better mechanism for moving these issues along than these big summits that always seem to sputter?

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: Yes. Very good question. You know, I think that you have to work at different levels. And I think that these large conferences are one of the levels at which you have to move. If I could just speak by way of analogy maybe to the climate change world, we there work in many different ways. There is just the same kind of all-country multilateral process that exists here. The Conference of the Parties meets every year. We also started a group called the Major Economies Forum, which brings together essentially the big 17 or 18 countries in the world, developed and developing. We meet three of four times a year to discuss issues that both involve facilitating the larger negotiations but also involve a focus on what we can do ourselves, given that this group of countries comprises about 80 percent of worldwide emissions. And we work bilaterally. We just also-just as another example, the U.S. with a number of other players, initially six total in February, started a new coalition to reduce so-called short-lived climate pollutants like methane and HFCs and black carbon. That group is now already up to, I don't know, 15, 16, 17 countries. The whole G8 endorsed it and has joined in. The World Bank is part of it, UNEP is part of it. That's not a treaty organization. That group doesn't come together to try to negotiate documents. That is a purely action-oriented body and we had, I guess maybe you could say, the first of what I hope will be many important events today, right here in Rio at an event which involved focus on landfill methane in cities that was hosted by the C40, the group of cities, and the Clinton Climate Initiative, World Bank, and this new initiative which is called the Climate and Clean Air Initiative. That's just an example.

We are moving on many different fronts in that world, and I think that there are activities on many different fronts in the sustainable development world as well. And I think you have to do all of that.

QUESTION: My name is Ana Paula Chinelli. I am from Rede TV, a TV network in Brazil. We are wondering what other points, the main points, that the U.S. did not get happy with this final document. And Minister Gilberto Carvalho — that's our Minister for Communications — had said that the document is still open because the heads of state can still decide many things and change the document. If that's so, what will the U.S. intend to present, try to change, in the final document that is going to be signed by the heads of state?

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: Well, two things. I think that, you know, the heads of state are coming. The document always-I mean, it could in theory be opened. I just-what I said earlier is I don't expect that it will be. I don't expect, more importantly, that the Brazilian leadership intends to open it because, as I said, I think there would be a real risk of it unraveling because so many countries-everybody got some things they wanted and didn’t get some things they wanted. So it could happen, of course it could happen. But I was expressing a view that I thought the Brazilian leadership, and I think — and that's not just what I think — that Minister Patriota and his team had made it pretty clear that they regard the document as finished. But, of course, we will have to see.

We don't have anything that we are expecting to try to drive into the document that is not there yet precisely because — just for the same reason that I just said — we don't expect it to get opened up. In terms of things that we would've preferred more of or differently, there is any number of things that maybe at a broad level-I would say that I think that the orientation could have been a little bit more what we have seen in some other circumstances where the focus is both on, what I might call, traditional assistance from donor to recipient countries but also very much recognizing the quite rapidly changing world where different kinds of flows are actually often a lot more important or at least as important. And that includes private sector investment and using government dollars to mobilize and leverage private sector investment. There are important, increasingly important flows that are sometimes referred to as "South-South" or "triangular" where there is a so-called North or donor country working with a developing country to provide assistance to still another developing country. There are important-a very important part of development for any country comes from their own domestic resources, inevitably. And if you look at successes around the world of countries that have really made great progress in development, it mostly has not come from the outside. Some of it comes from the outside. Some assistance comes from the outside, but an awful lot comes from the enabling environments, the economic reforms, educational reforms that countries drive themselves. I don't think there is enough of that kind of realistic sense of what it takes to drive development. There could have been a bit more of that in here. But I-as they say, nothing is ever going to work perfectly. But that's just an example.

QUESTION: Charlotte Smith, Green TV in UK. Given that ocean acidification is one of the biggest impacts of climate change at the moment, the U.S. delegation is being accused of blocking progress on better protection for the high seas. Oceans was supposed to be one of the priority areas in this conference. Can you talk to that, defend it? And will the U.S. ever support a high seas agreement?

SPECIAL ENVOY STERN: Well, look, I don’t-I surely don’t think that the United States was remotely blocking efforts on oceans. We were quite an active part of the discussion. We are quite focused on this area. I have to say too often, but it's true, that there are always challenging politics in the U.S. in many different respects. And we have been trying for quite some time now, a very long time indeed, to get the Law of the Sea Convention approved, and we have made a renewed, quite vigorous effort this year to try to do that. Indeed, Secretary Clinton testified in Congress and the Senate about this treaty just in the last few weeks. So we are very committed to progress with respect to oceans. There is some good language, good paragraphs in this outcome document today that involve sustainable fisheries and efforts with respect to fisheries that relate to the WTO and so forth. So the U.S. is not seeking to block progress, just the opposite.

PRN: 2012/1020

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