Briefing on the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun

Todd Stern
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Washington, DC
December 14, 2010

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State. It is, of course, a very sad day here at the State Department. We have lost one of our own and a legendary figure in Richard Holbrooke, who could fill a room, including this one, as he did many times, and took great pleasure in engaging the press in advancing whatever it was he was working on, whether it was peace in the Balkans, peace in Congo as UN Ambassador, or most recently, peace in South Asia in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A number of world leaders have already checked in today and to express their condolences to the Department and to the Holbrooke family. Obviously, we’ll have more details as they determine funeral arrangements and memorial services for Richard. And he was always known as Richard.

But first, to start off our briefing today, we have another special envoy, Todd Stern, who has returned from the climate change negotiations in Cancun and just wants to put what happened last week in perspective. So we’ll start off with Todd.

MR. STERN: Thanks, P.J. And I second what P.J. said about Richard Holbrooke who was a good friend of mine and actually very supportive of our work on this issue and of me personally, so a sad day in that regard.

Let me turn to the events of the last couple of weeks. Over the last two weeks, representatives from more than 190 nations met in Cancun for the 16th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the goal of reaching new agreements to advance our collective efforts to meet this challenge. In the early morning hours of Saturday in Cancun, the parties largely achieved that goal. This result was fundamentally consistent with U.S. objectives. Throughout the year, our strategic vision was to consolidate and elaborate on the progress made last year in Copenhagen by many of the world’s leaders, including President Obama, and to have such outcome fully endorsed by the Conference of the Parties, all the nations to the Climate Treaty, as the Copenhagen Accord obviously was not.

The resulting Cancun agreement advances each of the core elements of the Copenhagen Accord. Specifically, it anchors the accord’s mitigation pledges by both developed and developing countries in a parallel manner. It outlines a system of transparency with substantial detail and content, including international consultations and analysis; that was the negotiated phrase from the Copenhagen Accord. And this will provide confidence that a country’s pledges are being carried out and help the world keep track of the track that we’re on in terms of reducing emissions.

The agreement in Cancun also launches a new Green Climate Fund with a process for setting it up, creates a framework to reduce deforestation in developing countries, establishes a so-called technology mechanism which includes – will include a new technology executive committee and a climate technology center and network, and it will also set up a framework and committee to promote international cooperation and action on adaptation.

The U.S. is pleased that parties show the flexibility and pragmatism that was necessary to make progress in each of these areas. The two-week conference posed a number of quite difficult challenges. It was anything but clear for a long time that we were actually going to get this agreement. But guided by what I think was a really outstanding Mexican team, parties worked through the various problems with patience, and again, pragmatism, allowing us to reach the result that we did.

This package obviously is not going to solve climate change by itself, but it is a very good step and a step that’s very much consistent with U.S. interests and will help move the path – the world down a path toward a broader global response to changing – to stopping climate change.

And let me stop here and take any questions that you have. Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you explain to a layperson why they shouldn’t conclude that Cancun basically punted the hardest issue, which is to say mandatory emissions caps, until next year when there’s nothing particularly to suggest that there will be any more success on that issue next year?

MR. STERN: That’s actually not what happened. The issue that was rolled over to next year is what happens in the Kyoto Protocol track. One of the complicating things in this – or complicated things, particularly for lay people in this negotiation, is that there are simultaneously two negotiating tracks going forward. One is the Kyoto Protocol track, which doesn’t involve the United States, because we’re not part of it. And the issue there is will there be a second so-called commitment period of Kyoto, the first being 2008-12. And the question is: Does – do you go on for a period after that? There is a lot of eagerness on the part – mostly, of developing countries, although not only – to have such a second period. And there is a lot of resistance from a number of the parties, like Japan, Australia, Russia, Canada, to having such a period for a pretty understandable reason, actually.

I mean, again, we don’t take a side on this. We are comfortable with however the Kyoto issue gets resolved. But you can understand the hesitance on the part of some countries to want to go into a second period, given that a second Kyoto period would probably only cover 20-something percent of global emissions. It doesn’t have the United States in it and you don’t have any commitments from the major developing countries. Still, it is, again, a very passionately felt issue on the part of both developing and developed countries. So the issue there is would there be binding caps under Kyoto. But again, Kyoto is not the larger agreement that covers – that includes emission commitments from the U.S., China, India, Brazil, et cetera.

On that track, at the moment, while there may be something – some kind of legal treaty down the road, that’s not happening, I think, anytime soon for the reason that we’re not prepared to enter into legally binding commitments to reduce our emissions unless China, India, and so forth, are also prepared to do that. And at the moment, they’re not, so a little bit of a complicated answer, but it’s a complicated question.


MR. STERN: Yeah.

QUESTION: Let me just ask you, climate is changing around the globe, as you can see outside, including in South Asia, where you have seen a lot of disasters, including tsunami and all that. And they will be on their way in the future. What have you done since the last tsunami and earthquakes and all that as far as India is concerned and South – the region there? What are you doing? Anything with – for those tsunamis in the area?

MR. STERN: In the region?

QUESTION: Yes, sir.

MR. STERN: Well, first of all, we are doing things certainly in the region. This is a global problem, so that we are – the purpose of the global treaty is precisely that this is one of those issues that is – it obviously has local effects. I mean, if you have a problem in your region, that’s local. But unlike other kinds of environmental problems where you have local water or air pollution, climate pollution is the same whether the pollution is in India or, as they say, in Indiana. So it is a truly global problem which we are trying to deal with in a global way. We do have significant aid programs with India and other countries in the region.

One other little just kind of point of fact: Earthquakes and tsunamis, tsunamis coming from kind of underwater earthquakes, at least as I understand it, are actually not – that’s one of the – maybe one of the rare phenomena that we find that we see that actually has absolutely nothing to do with climate change. Earthquakes are not climate change related.

QUESTION: What I meant was that are you working on something. Those nations were asking to put some kind of warning system so – like we have here in the U.S., advanced warning systems and so on.

MR. STERN: Yeah. I think the United – I can’t speak authoritatively on all of the kinds of systems that we are putting in place, but I know that through agencies like NOAA the U.S. is actually doing a lot on that, in that area.


QUESTION: Can you give us an indication about your impression about India’s role at Cancun, how it went and all?

MR. STERN: I think India played, actually, a particularly constructive role in Cancun. I think that India was very much faithful to its own national interests and faithful to its role in the G-77, but at the same time creatively looking for solutions to difficult issues in the negotiation in a way that could bring in both developing countries – and by the way, developing countries are not a monolithic group at this point, there’s all sorts of different – there’s the large ones, there’s Africans and least developed nations and island states and so forth.

I think India really played a particularly constructive role in trying to find solutions that would bring everybody to the table. And one good example of that is on the issue of transparency, which was very important. It’s important because if you don’t understand – it’s great for countries to make pledges, but it’s important for all countries to have confidence in each other that they pledges are actually being carried out and implemented and so forth. And so this is an important issue – again, very different views – and India found – India made a proposal that I think people fundamentally came around. The ultimate language wasn’t exactly what India suggested, but it was really quite important that India did that.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Given the way the major industrial countries feel about a second commitment period in Kyoto, and what you’ve just said about the U.S. position of finding agreement under the convention presumably, then what’s the best the U.S. hopes to happen in Durbin? What outcome would –

MR. STERN: Well, look – from our point of view, what just happened is really very significant. All right? It outlines – it kind of lays out the structure of an international agreement in all of the crucial areas. These are – the language that was used last year was politically binding. I think that’s a good way to look at it. It’s not legally binding but it is – but these are serious decisions made under the auspices of a legally binding treaty. These are all decisions made under the kind of umbrella of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Governments do not take these things lightly.

I think what you could have, what I would hope to see, is countries start implementing – I think they already are starting to implement their mitigation pledges to put in place, following the elements, the outline if you will, that was negotiated in Cancun: a system of transparency; set up a green fund; set up the technology institutions and the adaptation institutions that were agreed to in Cancun; set up a system for increasing assistance to avoid deforestation and the like. You could do all of these things – not only you could do all of these things; that’s the program now. That’s what we have agreed to do to start implementing and further elaborating all of these things. And the day will come in the future when countries can come together in a legal format, but you can get an awful lot done on the way to that, and that’s what we’re trying to do.


QUESTION: Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, he told BBC News that there has been no statistically significant global warming since 1995. What would be your reaction to that data? Would you agree or disagree with those findings?

MR. STERN: Well, I’m not a scientist, so I’m not going to comment on it and I’m not familiar with exactly what he said. I think that if you look at the warming that has been recorded on a steady basis for over the last 20 years or so, you will see a very significant rise in temperatures over time. We have – and I think if you look at the last 20 years, you have something like the 15 or 18 warmest years in history having happened during that period.

So – I mean, I think it’s – I think there is a very, very broad consensus of scientists who see a marked warming trend, and again, a very large percentage of scientists who study in this area who attribute that to human activity.


QUESTION: I was wondering where you see the process going from here. There’s – coming out of Cancun, even with the agreements, there are details that have to be discussed over the next year.

MR. STERN: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you expect to hold another meeting of the Major Economies Forum in the near future, or where do you see things going in terms of the --

MR. STERN: Well, we – I think that there’s going to be a lot of work that will need to be done this year to carry out and implement the various agreements that were just made. In some areas, there’s a whole set of new guidelines that need to be written, and the transparency area is a good example of that. But there’s a lot of work to be done to flesh out the technology agreements and so forth. So I think in the – I mean, I certainly don’t have the whole vision of 2011 laid out yet since we just finished this agreement 48 hours ago. But I think clearly, the implementation of the elements of the agreement that just happened will be an important piece of that.

As for the Major Economies, I’m sure that we will meet again, but we don’t have any time set for that yet.

QUESTION: Hi, two questions along those lines. What does the U.S. specifically need to do, what’s its role in the next year to move this process forward? And as sort of a corollary to that, a number of senators have expressed concern about even arguably modest international financing commitments by the U.S. How do we move forward, given that?

MR. STERN: I think that the U.S. role this coming year is going to be much like the U.S. role this year, which is to be a very active player in setting the agenda and working with countries in really every conceivable grouping, and to try to push for pragmatic and meaningful steps forward, which is what we did this year. I mean, we were, I think anybody would say, quite central players in the diplomacy in 2010. And I think that we would – we will continue to do that in 2011.

With respect to financing, look, the financial promises that were made in the first instance in Copenhagen and continued in the Cancun agreements are extremely important. I mean, they’re – they are a core part of the deal. Obviously, the fiscal situation is exceedingly tough in the U.S. It’s tough in Europe and other places as well. And we are going to have to do the best we possibly can to carry out, to make good on the – in the first instance, the fast start pledge that was part of Copenhagen and reiterated here. In the second instance, to work with parties to set up a good structure of the good architecture for the new Green Fund that has been agreed on.

And then in the slightly longer-term front, to continue thinking through how sources can be put together for the $100 billion – the commitment to the goal of mobilizing that money from all sources, public and private, that we made by 2020 – again, that’s a joint commitment, and it’s a commitment that is conditioned on meaningful action in the area of mitigation and transparency. But that’s a lot to work on.


QUESTION: On the issue of China taking on binding commitments, is it the U.S. position still that China has to both sign on to those binding commitments internationally and take on real reductions, or is there something short of real reductions that the U.S. could accept as part of a treaty?

And on the MRV issue, it seems like your comments since the COP decisions were adopted have been pretty positive toward the MRV and the ICA issues that you were so strong on in there. And I’m wondering, is – what is missing there, or what would you like to still see strengthened or done on that issue, or is the U.S. position that you’re pretty satisfied where we are on those?

MR. STERN: Yeah. Right, let me take the China question first. Our position on China is that China needs to make significant reductions in its emissions. But for China or other developing countries, at this stage, those are going to be relative reductions. Those are going to be reductions against the so-called business-as-usual path that they would be on.

So given – when countries, whether it’s China or India or others, are growing at 6, 8, 10 percent, you can’t slam the brakes on completely and say you’ve got to be making absolute reductions tomorrow. It just – it couldn’t work. Because don’t forget, while the critical direction that we need to move on is to separate growth from the path of emissions, so that growth goes up but emissions can still go down, because you’ve got so much of your energy coming from low carbon sources, and so forth.

At this stage in life, the movement of emissions is very much – is very linked to the movement of economic growth. So you’re not going to get a Chinese economy growing at 10 percent to have a below-zero reduction in emissions. But what you can have is a very significant reduction against what they would otherwise be doing. And so that is the focus, and we – that has been our focus consistently. And it’s really the only rational focus that you could have.

We’re not calling – I mean, it’s not so much that we’re calling on China or India to make legally binding commitments right now. What we’re saying is we will do legally binding commitments only if they are symmetrical, if the emerging market countries do that also. If they’re not ready to do it, it’s not so much that we’re criticizing that, it’s just that we say in that – if that’s where we are globally, then we need to push forward in the kind of politically binding structure that we’re doing now. And we’re comfortable with that, and we can do it either way. We’re just not going to have a completely asymmetrical system. So that’s really what we mean in terms of – both of the real reduction question and the binding question.

With respect to MRV, I think that we’ve made a very good start. I think the elements that we cared about are in the Cancun agreement, so that – those elements still need to be put – still need to be used as the architecture or the outline for a set of guidelines that’ll kind of spell out in a little bit more detail how the things works. But what we – our focus, the real issue, the debate in Cancun was do you just agree to ICA with a 50,000-foot agreement on principles that it will be facilitative and non-punitive and we’ll figure everything else out later, which we said “unacceptable,” because we won’t have any idea where we’re going? Or do you lay out a whole set of elements that will then guide you in what you have to do this year, which is what we held out for and what was ultimately agreed to?


QUESTION: You said earlier the day will come for a legally binding accord. There are many people who say that the expectation of legally binding in the LCA track is creating – just setting the talks up for failure. What – do you think for the time being, I don’t know, the next five or 10 years, that that should not be an expectation given where big developing countries are?

MR. STERN: Well, first of all, I don’t think that there is a strong expectation of a legally binding track in the LCA part of the agreements. I think that the LCA agreements made it clear that a legally binding outcome was not being taken off the table. That’s still something that could happen, that any agreements that were being done in Cancun were being done without prejudice to whether – to the prospects for a legal agreement or the content of a legal agreement, and we agree with all of that. But I don’t – that’s different from saying that there’s an expectation that next year or the year after there’s going to be a legal agreement.

So I think that the hot issue that remains on the table with respect to something legally binding right now is on the Kyoto track. And the LCA track leaves absolutely open the possibility of a legal outcome, but doesn’t – I don’t think sets an expectation for immediate resolution of that.

You asked five, 10 years – I’m not going to put any timeframe on it. I think it depends a lot on how things develop in ways that we might just not be able to predict right now. Again, the United States is not against it, but we’re just – we do not believe in the Old World kind of old paradigm where all obligations go to developed countries and none to even the major developing countries, and it’s for a simple reason. I mean 55 percent of global emissions are already coming from the developing world. In the next 20 years, that’s going to go up to 65 percent. All the growth in emissions is coming from the developing world. We’re the largest historic emitter, make no bones about that. I mean we have to act. We recognize that. And the developed world generally has to do that. But if you’re trying to think about how to solve this problem going forward, it makes no sense to perpetuate that hard division.

I think I’ve exhausted you. Thank you very much.

PRN: 2010/1815