Does Todd Stern have a point over 2C climate change target?

By Ed King

It can’t be easy being Todd Stern.

The US Special Envoy for Climate Change operates in a polarised political environment, domestically and internationally.

At home the debate over whether climate change even exists is as hot as ever.

Abroad he has to contend with the fact that many believe the USA is ignoring its historical responsibilities and tacitly undermining the UN climate negotiations.

But what he says still counts.

So when Stern argued that insisting on a target of keeping global warming below 2C would lead to “deadlock” at the talks he was hit from all sides.

Todd Stern was the senior White House negotiator at the Kyoto Protocol negotiations

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) told the BBC’s Richard Black this would be a ‘death sentence’, while the EU said there was no going back and that “prior promises” had to be kept.

Christian Aid accused the USA of “a backflip with a twist” that “would win a Gold medal at the hypocrisy Olympics”, the Africa group of 54 countries said: “It’s like they agree they want to have their cake, but they can’t agree not to eat it; it’s increasingly hard for us facing the impacts of climate change today to take a progressively weakening US position seriously”. And so it went on.

Today Stern released a statement where he said the US continued to support the 2C goal, adding: “My point in the speech was that insisting on an approach that would purport to guarantee such a goal – essentially by dividing up carbon rights to the atmosphere – will only lead to stalemate given the very different views countries would have on how such apportionment should be made.”

There appears little doubt among governments and scientists alike that the 2C target is key, and as such it’s referred to in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.

Beyond that point scientists believe we will enter the realms of ‘dangerous’ climate change, a potential tipping point that could then speed up global warming. And many believe if we hit 2C it will be too late, which is why UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres and leaders from small island states called for a 1.5C limit last year.


But if you read Stern’s full speech, he does not deny that these targets are vital, quite the opposite.

First he levels his sights on those holding up policy proposals in the USA: “We can talk past each other, close our ears, put our heads in the sand, or join the local chapter of the Flat Earth Society, but here’s the thing – the atmosphere doesn’t care.”

He cites the recent droughts, floods and melting ice as clear evidence of climate change, before adding: “a level-headed assessment of what we know already should impel us to act with vigour and determination”.

His criticisms of the 2C target and the potentially groundbreaking 2015 international climate treaty are that they are seen as ‘silver bullets’, after which we can all relax and go home.

In its time the Kyoto Protocol was seen as the silver bullet to tackle climate change, and while it has been an invaluable learning experience for all concerned – few believe it has achieved what it set out to do, and in some ways the marked contrast between Annex I and non-Annex I countries has made negotiations harder.

Rather Stern argues that a “new agreement should give countries flexibility to modify and update their mitigation commitments, spurring more and more aggressive action over time”, adding that “the developing country of 2015 may be a top five economy by 2025”.

Equally his call for climate change efforts outside the confines of the UNFCCC to be recognised makes sense, so long as the key target to cut global emissions is not lost. The EU, G20 and Climate and Clean Air Coalition are all forums where progress can be made in this regard.

Realism vs reality

Some of Stern’s remarks are slightly disingenuous. He uses the G20’s 2009 decision to phase out “perverse” fossil fuel subsidies as an example of action outside the UNFCCC – and yet there appears no sign of that happening – especially in the USA.

He paints the US as a progressive influence within the UN process, particularly during the 2009 Copenhagen COP – obstructed he says at times by “the consensus rule of procedure, which, in effect enables any small handful of determined countries to block progress”. Many might raise an eyebrow at that comment.

He takes aim at the ‘firewall’ between developed and developing countries that emerged post-Bali. Yet former AWP-KP chairman Adrian Macey has recently accused the USA of tacitly supporting this barrier – in order to avoid being pressured into any Kyoto-type agreement.

And his confidence in ‘bottom-up’ measures is misplaced. There are many efforts from grassroots to big business to cut emissions which have achieved limited gains, but ultimately investors need the confidence that only binding regulatory frameworks can provide.

But as both Stern and Macey point out, ‘realpolitik’ cannot be erased from climate change talks, and binding emission targets are always going to be regarded by some states as an infringement on their sovereignty and potential for economic growth.

That many nations have a “warped opinion of core national interests” as Liz Gallagher from E3G argues is a moot point. She adds: “If political and economic elites genuinely internalised the potential havoc climate change could wreak upon their nations, they would have a more comprehensive understanding of their core national interests”.

But the use of GDP as a measure of national success is not going to change before 2015 – the apathetic response to Ban Ki Moon’s warning pre-Rio+20 that the old economic model is a ‘suicide pact’ is evidence of that.

Second chance?

So perhaps Stern’s comments should be treated in a different light, and perhaps the basis for negotiations involving over 190 parties could be more flexible?

The aim is to avoid a 2C rise not just for 2015 or 2020 but stretching into the next 100 years. For that to be achieved the USA (and China) has to be on board.

The ‘schedules’ structure Stern suggests – where countries offer up their own commitments – is a start. But completely abandoning the rules-based Kyoto framework and working on a voluntary ‘pledge’ basis could lead down a road towards 5C, so there has to be a compromise and a recognition of the positives that have come from Kyoto.

Avoiding two degrees is a key target for all involved in the climate process – and it’s also a scientific necessity. If we bust it a host of troubles lie ahead.

We also need some courageous US leadership on climate change – ideally less talking and more doing. This will come not from Stern, but from the President (and if Romney wins it’s fair to assume Stern will be looking for other challenges).

True, the multilateral system isn’t perfect but it’s all we have. The US could engender some much-needed trust if it truly engaged with its fellow parties at the UNFCCC, particularly the BRIC states and the developing world.

As we’ve seen at the Olympics, targets and incentives can motivate people to adopt ambitious training routines that they would otherwise never consider.

But perhaps Stern’s warning is that the sight of gold can also blind them to the most effective strategy they need to take – especially when the clock is ticking.

What do you think? Have your say via the comments box below.

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