Press Briefing: 17th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Press Statement
Todd Stern
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Durban, South Africa
December 5, 2011

MR STERN: Thanks very much. Hello everybody, I'm Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change. I'm pleased to be here representing the U.S. We thank the government of South Africa for the impressive task of hosting an enormous meeting like this, and we look forward to working with the president, the South African Presidency, and the government of South Africa in pursuing what we hope will be a successful outcome.

I got here on, I guess late Friday night, and I spent the weekend moving around in a significant number of meetings with my counterparts, discussing the various open issues of which there are a number and how we might be able to move towards compromise. And obviously I will continue that process this week. The pace and intensity of meetings will undoubtedly increase. We have five days here which is maybe not a lifetime, but a long time, in the world of COPs. The U.S. is committed to working with our partners to make Durban a success, and for us a balanced package in Durban includes two main elements, two main elements of this negotiation, I think, in general.

One is to carry out the agreements that were reached in last year's Cancun negotiation which was a very important negotiation that included for the first time, in an agreement adopted by the COP, undertakings by all the major economies, and many players beyond that, actually, to reduce their emissions as well as a transparency regime, an agreement to set up a Green Climate Fund, a technology center network, an adaptation committee and so forth. So there are important elements of what should become the architecture of an international climate system, and we did those things last year in the sense of agreeing to do them and now we need to follow through and do them. And what can happen this year in Durban is to take important steps to do the guidelines of the transparency system, get the Green Fund going, get the technology center going and so forth, and there will obviously still be further work in the coming year to make those, to get those things fully up and running. But there is important work to be done in that regard here, and that's probably the highest priority for the United States.

The second set of issues swirls around the Kyoto Protocol, what happens with respect to a potential second commitment period and the closely related issue of what might or might not be said about some future regime. So that's also an issue of a good deal of intensity and focus, and there will be a lot of discussion about that as we go forward this week. I think I will without anything further, stop there and be happy to take your questions. Thanks.

QUESTION: I have a question about the U.S. domestic commitments. You and Jonathan have for two years now been saying that the U.S. stands by its commitment, to its Copenhagen commitment, 17 percent about below 20, below 2005 levels by 2020. There hasn't been yet any clear roadmap or explanation of how you intend to get there, especially in the absence of U.S. domestic legislation. Other countries have put out various roadmaps of their own: UK, EU, most recently China put out a white paper that did a lot of explaining. Can you explain how, how the U.S. hopes to reach that or when we might see an explanation of how the U.S. hopes to reach that goal without a domestic legislation. And secondly, and until that is produced, why should other countries, you know adhere to, to, or answer to the things that the U.S. is concerned about until they show how you're going to cut carbon yourself. Thanks.

MR STERN: Well, Lisa, look, I think that a good deal has been done by the U.S. already, more than actually has ever been done before, under the leadership of President Obama. There has been very aggressive action taken with respect to the entire transportation sector, which is more than a third of our total emissions. That's been through strong EPA regulation that's lifted up mileage standards to 35 miles per gallon in the period of time that we're in right now, which was, went up from the mid-20s where it had been stalled for many years. And President Obama has come out in favor of increasing those levels all the way up to the mid-50s which is huge for the period that would kick in, starting in around 2016. So that's highly significant.

EPA is also in the process of doing regulations for stationary sources under the Clean Air Act. Those are things like power plants and so those are two very important elements. There was also in the Recovery Act that the President pushed through an enormous investment in green technology, some $90 billion, which has gone for renewables, for efficiency, for building a smart grid, I think some $10 billion to building a smart grid, for an enormous increase in electric car batteries that make electric cars possible with the U.S. capacity there growing enormously. In the space of the President's first term, the U.S. use of renewables will have doubled. So, there is a great deal of action.

Obviously, we tried to get major legislation done, and we got it halfway home and not all the way home. I think it's quite plausible that there will need to be legislation on the road to 2020. Don't forget it's 2011 now. We've got more than eight years to go with respect to the 2020 target, and I think we will keep pushing on, both in the context of executive action—of the kind the president has taken—and I'm sure there will be legislative efforts as well.

And you ask why should—I don't think anybody's adhering to what the U.S is saying—we're having a negotiation, and the U.S has been a very important player in the negotiations in the last two years. I think we are trying to help move this negotiation into a paradigm that makes sense for the future, and we're going to continue doing that, and I think the U.S is a big player, and there are a lot of other big players, and there's a lot of small players who are very important, so I think that negotiation will continue. Thanks.

QUESTION: Todd, over the weekend, Minister Xie of China said, and repeated again this morning, that China was willing to enter into a binding international treaty on climate after 2020 if five conditions were met, I think you're familiar with the five. Do you consider this a step forward, a step back, or a step sideways for China?

MR STERN: Well, I haven't talked with Mr. Xie about this yet. I'm going to be talking to him tomorrow morning, so I don't want to flatly categorize it because I need to talk to him directly. This is what I would say generally about a legally binding agreement. What matters in order for there to be a legally binding agreement at such time as that might happen, whenever that may be, it's going to be absolutely critical that all the major players, and China obviously is one of them. At this point China is 70 percent larger than the United States in carbon from energy, which is not everything, but it’s most of greenhouse gases, and rising rapidly, which is just a testament to their extraordinary economy. It's no criticism, it's just a fact.

So, in order for there to be a legally binding agreement that makes sense, all the major players are going to have to be in with obligations, with commitments that have the same legal force. It doesn't mean they have to be exactly the same thing, but they have to apply with the same legal effect to all parties. And that means there's no conditionality, they’re not conditional on receiving technology or financing, there's no trap doors, there's no Swiss cheese in that kind of an agreement. So that's imperative, and there are many parties who talk about a legally binding agreement, which would be kind of consistent with the structure that they see in the Bali Roadmap under which developed countries have legally, mandatory obligations, and developing countries have what are called in the somewhat arcane lexicon of this business, NAMAs—Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions—which are understood to be voluntary actions. So a legally binding agreement that is premised on that kind of division would not make any sense.

So I don't know what he's saying yet, and I would be very happy to talk to him. I do know that certainly up until now, after having had a great many virtually always quite cordial conversations with my good friend, China has not been willing to do the kind of legally binding agreement that I'm talking about. It would also incidentally—any future legally binding agreement—could not be premised on a 1992 division of countries. It just doesn't make any sense. The world has changed dramatically since 1992, so to the extent that there is any division of countries in an agreement going forward, it would have to evolve dynamically to reflect the changes in economic and emissions growth over the years. So, I'll talk to him tomorrow and let you know.

QUESTION: I'm wondering if you can outline, I know the U.S. has been reluctant to agree to the framework for the Green Climate Fund that was put forward at the last meeting. I'm wondering if you can outline some of the chief concerns and where you see that happening here, and sort of the level of commitment to moving that forward here because it is such a huge part of the negotiation for a lot of countries.

MR STERN: Sure, thanks a lot. So first let me say that the United States was one of the original proponents of the Green Climate Fund. It was proposed by President Calderon of Mexico and pretty early in 2009, the U.S was a supporter and really a champion of that idea. We actually gave the Mexicans a platform to socialize the idea, to put it forward at the Major Economies Forum meeting that we had in Paris in 2009. So we have always been very supportive of the process. We supported the agreement to set it up in Copenhagen and the reiteration of that agreement last year in Cancun and have been an active participant in the process all during this year. At the final meeting of the so-called Transitional Committee on October 18th in Cape Town that was set up to negotiate the elements of the Fund. We still had a few concerns, and so we agreed to have the draft instrument forwarded to the COP here for further consideration, and it was always contemplated at that the COP would either approve or not approve whatever instrument came out of the Transitional Committee.

We have a few concerns that kind of fall into a couple of different categories. The main one has to do with the role of COP with respect to the Fund. I don't want to bore you with too many details, but under the convention, the financial mechanism works so that a fund like this is designed to be what is called an operating entity of the financial mechanism and to operate under the guidance of, but not under the authority of, the COP. That is the way financial entities are supposed to work. That is where the GEF, for example, works. And our main focus is that the Green Fund work that way. It is consistent with the convention, and it also gives it the greatest possibility of being successful. We want to see a Green Fund that is going to draw in a lot of capital from countries all over the world, including the United States. And although I love climate negotiators and spend much of my time with them, they are not necessarily the most qualified people to run a multi-billion dollar fund. So, we are very keen on having this work in a professional way. I am quite optimistic that this will get done here. We are quite committed to having it get done. But we are just trying to iron out a few issues. That is really the main thing. There are a couple of places where I think there are just some mistakes as compared to what some of the underlying principles of the convention are. But I think that we are going to get there.

QUESTION: One of the U.S. groups today said they were hopeful that the U.S. would sign on to some kind of agreement in Durban that calls for the objective to work towards a legally binding deal. Is the U.S. open to that?

MR STERN: What I have said on many occasions is kind of what I said in answer to an earlier question about China. For the U.S. to be, first of all, the U.S. does not have any conceptual problem or disagreement with the notion of a legally binding agreement. And indeed the first major submission that we made in the spring of 2009, after the president came into office, and after I came into this job, was a submission for a legally binding agreement actually. It was a legally binding agreement based on the principles that I have talked about, where there was true legal parity between all the major players.

So, what I think right now is I do not think that the conditions are right for that because I don't think, and I mean I always try to make sure people understand this, I mean no criticism of any of the other major developing economies who have the positions they have. I respect those, but I do not think that they are ready for the kind of complete legal parity, no conditionality, evolving categories of countries, and all of the other elements that I have already talked about. I don't think that they are ready for that, and so I think it is highly unlikely that that would happen now.

And we are not going to go forward with a commitment to a legally binding result when we don't know who is going to be in or in what way they are going to be in. I mean a number of countries have expressed the view that we ought to know the content before we decide the final form of an agreement. And that is not our phrase, but I think it makes a lot of sense, and in some sense, encapsulates what I'm saying. Content for us in this case again means who is in and in what way are they in, and if things work out, and I’m in no way shape or form saying that it won't be a legal agreement; it might well be a legal agreement. But if you are saying should we commit to that right now in a circumstance when other countries are not prepared, as far as I can tell, to have to commit to the sorts of things we are talking about right now here in Durban, then I would say we would not want to sign on to that kind of thing.

MR STERN: Let me just add one thing though to Kim's question, because I want to clarify something. There are kind of two aspects to what the EU, who is kind of the chief proponent of this, has been talking about. One is a process to carry us forward from where we are now to the period where we would get a robust and multilateral and a rules-based, credible agreement. Whether it is legally binding or not—maybe yes, maybe no—but there are two elements.

There is a process, and they call it a roadmap. I would probably call it a process. But there is the process issue of how we carry it forward from here to getting a new agreement, and then, there is a question of what is the final endpoint of that agreement. And we are quite open, and I've told this to my friends in the EU, we are quite open to having a discussion that would lay out a process, and quite open to talking about what an ultimate agreement would be but just not determining now in advance what the legal form is when, again, as I said, I think the other major developing countries are not prepared to do the sort of thing I'm talking about.

QUESTION: I guess my question, we'll talk about the Climate Fund briefly just to follow up on that. Have you encountered much skepticism in terms of what the U.S. can bring to that fund going forward given, you know, congressional opposition to funding of that nature; and do you have any sort of sensitivity to that skepticism given the political situation back in Washington?

MR STERN: Look, I think people are aware of a general fiscal environment around the world that is tough right now. We have been doing pretty well in terms of our financing, given a tough fiscal environment. In the two years of 2010 and 2011, so sort of the first two years out of the three years of the Fast-Start period, we've put together all told about a little bit over five billion dollars. There's I think roughly 3.4 or so of that which is appropriated funds, and the rest of it comes from our export credit agencies. Those aren't bad numbers and we're doing our absolute best to keep it up and even do better.

So, you know, I can't speak about whether other people are skeptical or not, I think given the, both economic and political realities ,we're doing pretty well, and again assuming we can get the funds set up the right way, we will give and make every effort to keep doing well and even do better.

QUESTION: Hi Todd. Following up on Lisa's question about the ability of the U.S. to meet its target in the range of 17 percent. You've laid out the various actions the administration has taken. But to my knowledge the administration has not yet undertaken, or certainly not released, any kind of analysis on the impact of these actions towards meeting the pledge. There have been several environmental groups who've taken a stab at this, but obviously the government figures are the ones all would prefer to rely on.

So the question is, A, is there such an analysis and if so what's the percentage? And B, if not, when does the administration plan to make public an illustration of where we are, in the interest of transparency?

MR STERN: Yes, well, we will be reporting assuming—and I'm going to assume because I want to be confident—that the transparency measures that we agreed to last year in Cancun are going to, guidelines are going to get written, it's going to get set up. They will obviously be reported under that system. I think, I don't think we have the kind of analysis that you're talking about. The last thing that I have heard and I'm not, I don't want to be held to every decimal point here, but I think we're about six percent or so below 2005 right now. These numbers vary, and they vary depending on economic activity as well as the effect of the actions.

And some actions obviously build up over time, so you change the new, the vehicle regs are just coming into it, they're going to be into effect for the period 2012 to 2016 and then 2017 and forward. So they're very, very significant. They haven't had a big impact yet. So, in any event, we don't have that kind of analysis. We will certainly be reporting; it will be part of what we need to be reporting on under the new transparency regime which adds to the existing— there's a lot of existing reporting with respect to things like inventories—but the new reporting will require us to give account for how we are doing and implementing our target and that will be true for the U.S. and everybody else, and also true for countries on the developing countries side. So stay tuned, I guess.

QUESTION: Many of the envoys are saying that any deal has to include all the major players. And the two major players, China and the United States, are not bound by an agreement. Are China and the United States at loggerheads or is there common ground that should give us hope that we may see an agreement, a binding agreement, that includes all the major emitters?

MR STERN: So let me say two things about that. First of all, China and the U.S. are not at loggerheads at all. I actually think we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and have a quite good relationship with respect to this issue. I guess, the other thing I would say is that I appreciate the focus, and there is obviously a lot of focus around the world and in these halls on the notion of a legally binding agreement.

And again, we have no opposition to that idea in concept. We do have an opposition to, or we don't agree with the notion that it is the be-all and the end-all. I mean, let me just give you an example. Kyoto Protocol, you know, in its heyday probably has covered 20, I don't know, 27, 28 something like that, high twenties percent of global emissions. In terms of, we know Japan, Canada and Russia are not going to re-up for a second period and there may be other players who don't re-up as well. So if, on the assumption that the EU and a few others do, you will probably have Kyoto as a legal instrument covering about 15 percent of global emissions.

Cancun has commitments from countries covering more than 85 percent of global emissions, and they're not casual commitments. I mean, those are decisions made on a legal treaty. All of this is under the framework convention. So decisions made under the framework convention are taken dead seriously. I don't think for a second that the Chinese, the Indians, the South Africans, the Indonesians, the Americans, the Japanese or anybody else are going to take those commitments lightly.

So it would at the right time be a good idea or could be a good idea to have a legally binding agreement. But I wouldn't, I think there is an excess of focus on that as the be-all and end-all. What matters, I'm reminded of a comment that a delegate from a small island state, a developing country, made at one of our major economies meetings. At all of these meetings we always invite a number of other countries to participate who are not, quote, majors. And this delegate from a low-lying state facing a lot of risk, you know, raised his hand and said, look, it's fine to have a discussion about legally binding, but legally binding is a means to an end. And if it's not the best means to an end, then we have to find a different means to the end. But the end is to take action that reduces emissions.

So again, we don't have any disagreement with the concept of legally binding, but I would focus on the imperative of taking real action. I think that's happening now. I think China is in the game. China as a result of the negotiations that went on in 2009 in the lead up to Copenhagen announced for the first time ever a target, 40 to 45 percent improvement in their emissions intensity between 2005 and 2020. And India acted, and South Africa acted, and Brazil acted, and many, many other players acted so that we have that large percentage of global emissions covered. And that's significant, and I think we must not lose sight of that. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Thank you.