Climate envoy Todd Stern on U.S. climate action and the possibility of deal with China
U.S. Climate Envoy and former Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Todd Stern spoke at CAP Tuesday. If you want to know where US-China negotiations are headed on climate, I highly recommend watching the video of his talk here (a PDF of his prepared remarks are here).
He is a blunt guy for someone who is the lead State Department climate negotiator, as made clear by the headline quote about the need for the United States to get off its butt and lead the way with domestic climate action. Duh! (see “US responsible for 29% of carbon dioxide emissions over past 150 years, triple China’s share“).
He emphasized that “the [current] status quo is unsustainable.” He took that message in his subsequent travel to China last week to discuss bilateral global warming agreements between the U.S. and Chinese governments.
“This is a moment to reevaluate our conceptions about what is possible,” CAP President and CEO John D. Podesta said as he introduced Stern. It’s a crucial opportunity for the United States and China to move forward together on climate issues because, as Stern pointed out, any U.S. action on climate change will not be enough without China.
He hopes to “deepen the dialogue” with China and “drill down deeper” on climate issues. A bilateral agreement with China is part of the long-term goal, but he said that does not expect a “big agreement” to come out of this trip. His goal is to lay a foundation for future agreements.
Stern shied away from discussing specifics of potential agreements between the United States and China, but he did mention some key issues that will have to be on the table. For example, “I don’t think there is any question that the developed countries are going to have to provide resources to many countries in the developing world,” he said.
Emissions limits, which are currently being debated in the United States as part of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, will be another key issue for China. Many in China fear that, “putting limits on emissions would constrain economic growth, job creation, and the country’s capacity to continue its impressive rise,” Stern said. But he argued that China “must do what many in the Chinese leadership recognize, and is not to stop growing, but to grow smarter.”
China has already begun to “grow smarter” in many ways, and Stern urged listeners not to forget that. “We need to acknowledge the impressive steps the Chinese have already taken to promote low-carbon development and the new ones that will be coming off drawing boards soon,” he said.
Stern also cautioned against urging the Chinese to move forward if others remain complacent. “We need to recognize that if we aren’t careful, we may spend the next few years pushing China to do more, but will then spend all the years after that chasing them, as they hurtle profitably down the road to the low-carbon transformation,” he warned.
International climate change agreements are not as easy choice for the Chinese, according to Stern. “China can take a new path recognizing the need to make significant international commitments against the background of a robust collaboration with the United States,” he said. “While I think, in my view, the right choice is clear, you shouldn’t underestimate the dilemma for China.”
Stern is hopeful and told attendees that he does not think the two sides are that far apart on what must be done. “In terms of the overall dynamics of where we need to go, I don’t think it is a dramatically different assessment,” he said. He also said that the United States needs to “listen, not just lecture” during this week’s talks.
He expects conversations with the Chinese to be more science oriented than past talks because he is travelling with John Holden, the White House’s chief science adviser. He also said that he believes the Chinese are “in a different place with respect to where the science is,” although he did express concern about the Chinese government’s domestic emissions estimates, which show lower emissions levels than what many independent assessments have found.
Those discrepancies would need to be resolved as part of an international emissions treaty in the future, but this week’s trip will focus on setting the stage for future agreements, which have become increasingly important as Kyoto nears expiration in 2012. The United States must play a major part in reducing emissions, but global climate change is a problem too large for one country to resolve alone. As Stern told attendees, “While the critical first step must be for us to put our own house in order, the problem can only be solved globally.”
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