US climate strategy: ‘goad’ leaders into voluntary action

Chief negotiator Todd Stern argues for a climate deal based on non-binding national commitments

(Pic: IISD/Flickr)

(Pic: IISD/Flickr)

By Megan Darby

We are moving towards a “tipping point” in political will and public support for a global climate deal, the US chief negotiator said on Tuesday.

Speaking at Yale University, Todd Stern said the world is “in a better position than ever before” to take action on climate change.

With just over a year to go until an international agreement is due to be signed in Paris, Stern laid out the US approach.

This is based on a “bottom-up” deal made up of national commitments put forward by each country, rather than imposed from above – an idea most negotiators are on board with.

More controversially, Stern said national governments should not be legally bound to deliver on those plans.

Instead, he said the plans should be open for all to see, which would “goad them [the governments] into putting their best foot forward”.

These plans will cover measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. Rich countries are also expected to provide finance to help poorer countries meet their goals.

The parties to the UN climate process agreed at the 2011 Durban talks to work towards a legally binding deal. But it left open the exact legal nature of a future agreement.

Stern is backing a proposal from New Zealand. This would legally oblige countries to put forward plans and report on their progress, but impose no penalty if they reneged on their commitments.

“Some will disapprove,” he acknowledged. “We would counsel against that kind of orthodoxy.”

A stricter regime would alienate several countries, he said, while others would “inevitably lowball their commitments out of anxiety”.

He put the emphasis on clear rules so that people could hold leaders to account if they fell short of their promises.

And he stressed countries must offer pledges with no strings attached. “A commitment that is entirely conditional is not really a commitment at all.”

COMMENT: Countries need an incentive to bid ambitious climate plans

This voluntary approach could help break the deadlock between the global north and south, Stern argued.

Developed and developing countries have long wrangled over how to share the burden of emissions cuts.

The least developed countries hold fast to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”.

This dictates that industrialised nations responsible for the bulk of historic emissions must cut first and deepest.

Poorer states are “understandably nervous” at the idea of limiting emissions, said Stern.

Their priority is to lift citizens out of poverty and burning fossil fuels has traditionally been the basis for economic growth.

While the ultimate goal is to break the link between prosperity and fuel consumption, Stern admitted “we are not there yet”.

The dispute comes down to the definitions of developed and developing countries, based on a list drawn up in 1992.


Things have changed since then, Stern said, for example with China’s economy and emissions soaring. And they will continue to change over the lifetime of any agreement.

“When we have made sure the material interests of developing countries are fully protected… then there is no justification for using fixed 1992 categories.”

If the developing world insists on the two-tier system, Stern said that will be a “deal-breaker” for the US.

The US proposes to set goals initially for 2025 and revisit them every five years. Others say the agreement should reach to 2030.

Technological developments and political momentum will allow the US to put forward “significantly more ambitious” targets in five years time than it can now, according to Stern.

In Paris, this approach could build a “stable, durable, rules-based climate agreement with legal force, that is more ambitious than ever before, even if it is not ambitious enough…

“I think we can do this, I think we will do this, but the clock is ticking.”

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