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Diplomacy in Action

Statement by Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

May 25, 2011


Hearing on “UN Climate Talks and Power Politics: It’s Not About the Temperature”

Thank you Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and members of the Committee for inviting me here today. I look forward to our discussion.

Let me start at the start, with some brief background.


The ongoing international climate negotiations take place under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty signed in 1992 in the Bush Administration, and approved by the Senate that same year. The Framework Convention obligates Parties to work to address climate change, including by striving to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and by regularly reporting national inventories of emissions. The Convention in effect divided the world into two broad categories of countries: Annex I Parties – consisting of circa-1990 OECD countries along with former Soviet bloc nations – and non-Annex I Parties, consisting of all other countries, including major emerging economies such as China and India.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, Annex I Parties were assigned specific, legally binding emissions reduction targets for the period 2008-2012. There were no such obligations for non-Annex I Parties. Although the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, we announced in 2001 that we would not ratify Kyoto.

At the 2007 climate conference in Bali, a new mandate, which the George W. Bush Administration negotiated, established two negotiating tracks: first, a negotiation among Kyoto Protocol Parties over the post-2012 future of that agreement; and second, a negotiation under the so-called LCA track (”Long-term Cooperative Action”) to cover all UNFCCC Parties, including the United States and non-Annex I Parties such as China and other developing countries. The mandate for the LCA negotiations did not specify whether the goal was a legally binding treaty or something else.

The Paradigm Shift

At the time President Obama took office, there was a prevailing paradigm in the climate negotiations that came to be accepted by many – although not by all and certainly not by the United States. That paradigm holds that there is and should continue to be a firewall between developed and developing countries (that is, Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1) as they were defined in the Framework Convention, with all specific obligations to address climate change assigned to developed countries. The principle from the Convention that is cited – wrongly in our view – as the foundation for this firewall is that parties have “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

But there are multiple problems with this paradigm. First, although I won’t dwell on this point right now, it is wrong as a matter of textual analysis; the Framework Convention did initially give heightened commitments to a category of countries, but did not freeze that category for all time or create a firewall between those countries and all others.

Beyond this legal point, however, the Kyoto paradigm is unworkable as a matter of substance. You cannot address the global climate challenge by focusing only on developed countries when developing countries already account for around 55% of global emissions and will account for 65% by 2030. You cannot build a system that treats China like Chad when China is the world’s second largest economy, largest emitter, second largest historic emitter, will have emissions that are some 90% larger than the U.S. by 2020, and has even surpassed France in per capita emissions. Instead, you need to start with all the major emitters, both developed and developing, accounting for some 80% of global fossil fuel emissions and build out from there.

This understanding led the Obama Administration to support and further elaborate on a 2007 initiative by President Bush – the Major Economies Meeting, comprising the 16 leading developed and developing countries plus the EU – to address energy and climate change. We slightly changed the name – to Major Economies Forum – and changed the focus, but retained the basic group. We have held 11 meetings at the ministerial level and one at the leader level, and it has proved to be quite useful. We also pursue very active and important bilateral diplomacy.

Recognizing the flaws in the conventional wisdom about Kyoto, we favored a different approach. First, we thought it essential that all major economies, both developed and developing, make commitments to limit their emissions. Second, we believed that countries should base those commitments on their own national plans and circumstances, rather than having targets that seem to be imposed from outside. We saw this as essential for the United States, but also as crucial to bringing major developing countries on board, since most countries – developed and developing – are more likely to commit to and implement a set of targets or actions that they designed. This approach was new. It contradicted the received wisdom that developed country action was mandatory while developing country action – even for the largest developing countries – was strictly voluntary. And it replaced Kyoto-style negotiated targets with nationally determined undertakings.

In the fall of 2009, Denmark, as the President of the 15th Conference of the Parties, concluded that a new legally binding agreement was unattainable, and so, to break that stalemate, proposed that we start with a strong but non-legally binding accord.

The Copenhagen Accord, agreed to by a large majority of the Parties to the UNFCCC, marked the first time that all major economies, developed and developing, agreed to implement targets or actions to limit their emissions, and to do so in an internationally transparent manner. The transparency element was essential in our view, both so that all relevant countries have confidence that others are acting and so that the international community can see the level and the trajectory of global emissions. In this sense, the Copenhagen Accord represented the first break in the traditional firewall. In the end, a small, but vocal minority of countries blocked the formal adoption of the Copenhagen Accord – it was “taken note of.” But the Cancun meeting confirmed and substantially extended the Copenhagen Accord, and the Cancun agreements were formally adopted by the Parties to the UNFCCC.

I should also say that part of what made the Copenhagen and Cancun deals possible was a commitment to aid poor countries. I want to tell you why I think such funding is a sound investment, very much in our national interest. It will strengthen our international posture, contribute to our own economic growth, and help build a clean-energy world less exposed and more resilient to the very real dangers of climate change. Our program – the Global Climate Change Initiative - is built on three pillars:

· First, clean energy, to help put developing countries on a low-carbon path, decrease pollution globally, bolster international energy security by strengthening reliance on domestic and renewable resources and create increased trade and investment in clean technologies and new opportunities for U.S. business and workers;

· Second, sustainable landscapes, which entails conserving forests, fostering sustainable land management, and combating illegal logging around the world. We do this not only to limit climate change, but also to preserve the home of at least 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial species, including 70 percent of plants identified as having anti-cancer characteristics; and

· Third, adaptation, which means building resilience against extreme weather events to reduce the risk of damage, loss of life and broader instability that can result from extreme weather and climate events, such as droughts, floods, and extreme storms. Whatever your views on climate change, the United States needs to – and always does – stand ready to help countries victimized by such events. It is who we are, and it is in our own interest to do these things. It is part of why people around the world look with favor on America. Likewise, helping countries take action in advance that reduces damage from extreme events makes good sense and is cost-effective: the World Bank estimates that every dollar spent on disaster preparedness saves $7 in disaster response.

A great many countries around the world, particularly vulnerable ones facing real danger, see climate change as one of the fundamental challenges facing humanity. Whether you agree or disagree, it is vital to U.S. diplomatic leverage generally, and to long-term U.S. interests in the world, to be seen as meeting our responsibilities in this regard.

Finally, our climate funding provides real bang for the buck. The overall U.S. foreign operations budget is about 1% of the total USG budget, and our climate funding is only about 3% of that. In short, all these benefits come from a budget that amounts to only about three one hundreds of one percent of the total USG budget.

Going forward

So where do we stand now in the negotiations and what is the outlook? The first priority for the work leading up to this year’s conference in Durban, South Africa, should be to implement the key agreements reached in Cancun – to draft guidelines establishing a transparency and accountability system; to design the new Green Fund that was agreed to in principle; to set up a Climate Technology Center and Network; and to create a new Adaptation Committee. If we take these steps and start building the new institutions needed for a pragmatic international regime, COP 17 will be a solid success.

Whether we will manage this, however, is by no means clear. This year’s first negotiator-level meeting for all 192 countries in Bangkok was marked by struggles over the agenda. The tensions running through these negotiations may have abated a bit, but they are still very much with us. Most fundamentally, many developing countries, including large ones, continue to be fixated on preserving the firewall between developed and developing countries. As I have explained, we see this as both unjustified and incompatible with solving the problem. As I have said repeatedly, we are not going to be part of a new agreement with a fixed, bright-line, 1992-vintage firewall.

After all, the notion that the world should be indefinitely divided for climate change purposes into categories established in 1992 makes no sense. The world has changed dramatically since that time. Look at some basic facts and figures. As of 2009, 4 of the top 10, and 9 of the top 20 emitters of CO2 from fossil fuels were non-Annex 1. China’s GDP is nearly 6 times larger than in 1992; its per capita GDP is more than 5 times larger; its CO2 emissions are nearly 3 times larger and its per capita CO2 emissions are 2.5 times larger.

Beyond the firewall question, there are other difficult issues that could derail the international negotiations. The most obvious is the ongoing puzzle of the Kyoto Protocol, which still exists, though the United States is not a party. In a word, developing countries insist on a second Kyoto period, starting in 2013, in which developed country parties alone would make legally binding commitments to reduce their emissions. Many developed country parties oppose such a second Kyoto period since the U.S. isn’t in Kyoto and the emerging economies have no meaningful obligations. This issue, once again, goes back to that old firewall problem.

And there are other perennial issues more likely to divert and divide than to produce results, such as notions of apportioning the atmosphere or weakening protection for intellectual property. Such ideas are non-starters, from our perspective. Mr. Chairman, as I prepared for this hearing today, I noted that you asked me in a hearing in November 2009 whether we would stand strong for intellectual property rights in the course of our negotiations. I assured you we would, and am pleased to report today that we have followed through on that commitment and will continue to do so.

The question for the UN climate negotiations, at the end of the day, is what parties want. The UNFCCC has the potential to be a cooperative, mutually beneficial platform – though not the sole platform – for combating climate change. It also has the potential to be a platform focused mostly on rhetorical thrust and parry, with a thick overlay of accusation and blame. The one vision is useful. The other is not.

We will continue working to support that first, cooperative vision, always bearing in mind that the central mission of our discussions must be to try to address the climate challenge, not to settle old scores. The ongoing challenge for the UNFCCC is to be the kind of body that remains relevant to that task. We have made some good progress, especially in working to knock down the firewall I’ve discussed, and in insisting on a new level of international transparency. But much work remains.

Thank you again for inviting me to testify today. I’ll be happy to take your questions.

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