The New Climate Negotiations: Ambition, Differentiation and Flexibility

Todd Stern
Special Envoy for Climate Change 
World Future Energy Summit
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
January 15, 2013

As Delivered

I’m pleased to be here. I appreciate the invitation from my good friend Sultan al-Jaber. The UAE has been doing enormously impressive work on sustainability in recent years, and I’m very glad to be able to participate in the World Future Energy Summit. And pleased to be making my third visit to the region in three months. Let me also express, again, my appreciation to my friends in Qatar for the excellent job they did in hosting COP-18 – no easy task.

I am especially glad to have the opportunity to address a gathering like this because the only chance we have to contain climate change is to accelerate the growth of clean energy economies. There are, of course, many non-climate benefits to clean energy, but what turns the pursuit of clean energy into a war of necessity, if you will, rather than a war of choice is climate change. So it is important for people in the clean energy business to be strong proponents of climate action.

Negotiating the New Climate Agreement

We face now a fundamental challenge and a genuine opportunity in the multilateral climate negotiations. The recent meeting in Doha – COP 18 – accomplished what it set out to do – concluding both negotiating tracks that were established in Bali in 2007. Most important, the Parties pointed the way forward for development of a new agreement under the new Durban Platform negotiating track.

In Durban, we agreed to negotiate a new agreement having legal force and “applicable to all Parties” – in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, whose real obligations were applicable only to developed countries. So this was a landmark moment. Now we have to deliver. Today, I want to focus on the imperative of making this new agreement work, and I’m going to do that by discussing three broad propositions.

First proposition: Our central focus in negotiating a new agreement must be on what is known as “ambition” – doing what it takes to start solving the problem. This, after all, is the point of our entire project: to avoid dangerous climate change and preserve a hospitable world for all of us, our children and those who follow. It is the stated Objective of the entire Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is the UNFCCC’s reason for being.

So the question is: how do we construct an international regime with the best chance of accomplishing this? Anyone can say we should demand draconian commitments to slash our emissions and to have those commitments subject to a rigorous compliance regime with tough penalties for non-compliance. But this is really just ambition on paper, because in the real world, countries will reject obligations they see as inimical to their core interests in development, growth and eradicating poverty.

What we need is real ambition – to achieve maximum action in a way that nations will embrace because they see it as consistent with their core interests. At the same time, we all must challenge ourselves to take a deeper look at what pursuing core interests really means. The fact that moving to clean energy may have a cost in the short run cannot be taken as an excuse not to act.

Some actions can be taken at low or even no cost. Others will have some cost up front but will pay off over time, particularly when the full cost of fuel choices – in terms of pollution, health impacts, and energy security – is taken into account. And even when the benefit of action is farther down the road, it can be every bit as crucial to growth and development. After all, the projected damage of climate change – damage already visible in the storms, floods, droughts, fires, dying coral reefs and rising sea levels we see all around us – will surely threaten the core interests of all countries.

So, yes, real ambition has to be consistent with the core interests of countries, but countries need to expand the boundaries of their own thinking about what is and isn’t consistent. We all – whether the United States or China, the EU or Brazil, Japan or Mexico or India – must challenge ourselves. We won’t get where we need to go if countries see climate change as an afterthought.

Second proposition: Differentiation among countries – which may be the most misunderstood and contentious issue in the entire negotiation – is critical, but to support strong ambition, it has to be based on real, material circumstances, not on ideology. Unless we are able to move beyond old ways of thinking about differentiation, we will risk making the UNFCCC an obsolete instrument for solving the climate challenge. Many countries in the UNFCCC hold the view that differentiation must be conceived as they have always conceived it – that developed countries as defined in 1992 created the problem; that it’s their sole responsibility to fix it; that all commitments to address climate change are their province; and that associated issues such as transparency or rules for counting and tracking emissions need to be handled on a bifurcated basis, based purely on those 1992 categories.

But there’s a different view, one that is fully consistent with the famous phrase from the Convention – “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” First, we have to make sure differentiation supports ambition rather than discourages it. Remember, we are talking about an agreement likely to run to 2030 or beyond. Developing countries now account for about 55 percent of greenhouse gas emission and are projected to account for some 65 percent by 2030. We simply cannot address climate change on the theory that all commitments must come from developed countries.

Second, we cannot expect the same from all countries. Differentiation should be thought of along a spectrum. A spectrum means, among other things, that we should not have the same expectations for emerging powers like China, Brazil, Mexico or Korea as we have for countries of modest capacity just because all of them are “developing.” And the reverse is true. Poor countries should not be expected to do what emerging powers do. Indeed, relatively little should be expected of a great many poor countries whose capacity is modest and whose contribution to climate change is very small.

Consider an example of differentiation from within the climate regime. Developed countries all share the same obligation to submit annual inventories, but they can choose to report on those inventories in different ways depending on their capabilities. In other words, there is a common obligation – to submit an inventory – but differentiated means of fulfilling it. This may be a useful model for how to think about differentiation in a new climate agreement. Thus, no country need worry that the United States is seeking to eliminate differentiation and put every country on the same footing, a fear I sometimes hear expressed, but which has no basis in fact. What we believe is that for differentiation to support our mutual, overarching commitment to ambition, it must be based on the real and material circumstances of countries in the period covered by the agreement – in this case, the 2020s and beyond.

Let me pause here for one parenthetical note. The transparency with which countries implement their commitments will be a critical element of any new climate agreement. I am sometimes bemused by the anxiety of powerful countries that are terribly shy about having anyone look at or comment on what they are doing on climate change. We need to get past this, as we have in many other international regimes. Countries will be more ambitious if they have confidence that their peers are also genuinely acting. And only a system that lets the sun shine in will give them this confidence.

Turning now to my third proposition: we must be ready to think outside the box of past climate negotiations and create a flexible structure that can best achieve the objective of real ambition and the imperative of broad inclusiveness, while accommodating the varied circumstances of the Parties. What elements must we keep in mind in designing such a structure?

First, it is likely that mitigation commitments will need to be nationally determined. Some prefer the model of top-down, negotiated targets and timetables, but in an agreement with over 190 Parties, it is hard to imagine how such a negotiation could succeed. Even if we directed our mitigation focus to the most important emitting countries – and I think such a focus makes some sense from the perspective of producing results – such a negotiation would face daunting odds. By contrast, mitigation commitments rooted in national policy planning rather than abstract numbers agreed to in an international negotiating room stand a much better chance of being successfully implemented.

If we do go the route of nationally determined commitments, however, we will need to focus intensively on how best to ensure ambitious country submissions. One idea might be to require countries to submit their proposed climate program six months in advance, so that other countries and the broader public would have time to scrutinize the submission and offer comments.

Second, as part and parcel of nationally determined mitigation commitments, we should agree that different metrics for measuring action are perfectly appropriate. Such metrics might involve, among others, absolute emission reductions; reduction in carbon intensity; or statistics tracking the rate of growth of a clean energy economy, such as the percentage penetration of clean energy alternatives in a country’s energy mix or the decrease in an economy’s energy intensity.

Third, we should be interested in the overall effectiveness of a country’s climate program. Offsets are important and can help lower the costs of climate action, but a strenuous target purchased through foreign offsets is not necessarily more ambitious – even if the target is larger – than a program built on more aggressively accelerating development of a clean energy economy at home. Similarly, steps such as spurring breakthrough technology development won’t show up in targets at all, but might be even more important for meeting our climate challenge.

Fourth, we should be open to all manner of creative undertakings, including plurilateral initiatives that can spur ambitious action. As one example, some are looking at the potential of sectoral agreements, which might involve countries, companies, or both. This kind of thing could be done within the bounds of the Framework Convention, such as by using Article 7.2(c), or could take shape outside the Convention, with positive results supporting the new agreement’s overall ambition.

Finally, I would point out that regimes built to encourage a “race to the top” are likely to have the best chance of success. Regimes built on the kind of tough stringency intended to spur ambition can end up doing the opposite if countries lowball their commitments for fear of not meeting them. It is interesting that some of the same countries most hesitant about making international commitments are most eager to trumpet the good work they do at home. There may be a lesson there. I’d also note that a message of limits, reductions and restraints is much less attractive than a message of building something vibrant and new – a 21st century clean energy economy. I don’t know yet precisely how to capture a race-to-the-top dynamic with respect to climate change, but the idea is worth exploring. The key is that orthodoxy must be set aside as we consider the future – the prospect of producing concrete results is all that should matter.

So, to sum up: my watchwords for those of us working on climate negotiations are: real ambition; smart differentiation; and flexibility. Let’s not plough the same furrows once again; 2015 is not 1992 – and 2030 will be different still. The Durban Platform negotiation may be the last best chance for the UNFCCC to create a regime that can alter the course of climate change. Let us be guided at every step and in every decision by our shared commitment to conquer this challenge, to serve our respective nations and all nations, and to make our children proud.