US climate envoy bats off fears Republicans will ditch Paris pact

Diplomatic blowback would be huge if new president decided to renege on commitments, Todd Stern tells reporters in London

US climate envoy Todd Stern consults with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua (Photo by IISD/ENB)

By Ed King

“Everyone take a deep breath… this is not that serious.”

Last seen by this reporter doing the YMCA in a Paris nightclub hours after the COP21 summit had closed, lead US climate envoy Todd Stern cut an equally relaxed figure on Thursday addressing UK reporters in London.

That was a surprise, given the storms swirling around US climate policy. A long-planned trip to Europe has turned into a damage limitation exercise, courtesy of five elderly judges.

“It was no surprise to us there would be legal challenges,” he said, referring to last week’s Supreme Court decision to postpone the rollout of President Barack Obama’s flagship Clean Power Plan.

“It is important and it’s a strong regulation but we will stick to our plans for signing and joining.”

Stern discipline: The US climate envoy walking a fine line

A senior official – perhaps not Obama as he could be travelling – will sign the Paris agreement on 22 April, assured Stern. The presidential order to cement US commitment will follow this year.

This is important. The UN’s shiny new climate deal wouldn’t collapse without the US, but it would look a whole lot weaker.

While 195 countries backed the pact, the US (14%), China (25%) and EU-28 (10%) alone count for just under 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if – and it’s a massive ‘if’ stressed Stern – the Supreme Court were to rule Obama’s plan to cut power plant emissions in the 50 states was over-reach, they will deploy other options.

He was coy on what these might be, but emphatic a range of vehicle emission standards, efficiency regulations and policies to incentivise renewables place the US in a strong position.

“We anticipate it will be upheld but if for whatever means we’d have to use other means to get our targets… but we’re sticking to our target,” he said.

Comment: Why the Paris climate deal doesn’t depend on the US

Rumours are Stern may choose the change in presidency to exit stage left with a global deal under his belt, leaving others to work on key areas in the Paris deal: finance, transparency, reporting.

If a Republican wins, he’ll likely have no choice. The US civil service is fiercely partisan, and a man who served first under Bill Clinton and then Obama comes with a massive blue mark.

But be the incumbent a Trump, Rubio, Cruz – or increasingly unlikely another Bush – Stern laughed off suggestions they would nix the agreement.

“I don’t see it’s remotely likely a president would pull us out of Paris… but people follow what’s going on in the US politically with great interest… because we’re a big, important player,” he said.

In 2001, President George W Bush took the US out of the Kyoto Protocol (which it had never ratified), and faced significant blowback, Stern argued.

US green groups: Paris is not Kyoto mark two

Do that with an agreement backed by the whole world – in many cases under duress from the US – and that could get a hell of a lot worse.

“I have no doubt it would be very significant if the US were to back out of Paris – it would be much more significant than what happened before… there would be consequences,” he said.

After two months of hibernation, it seems the global climate diplomacy machine is slowly awakening from its Paris hangover, cognisant of a job half done.

In two weeks, he flies to China to meet “my good friend Mr Xi”, and from there to Japan for an annual informal meeting of top climate negotiators.

It’s unlikely the EU’s 28 member states will get their act in gear to ratify the Paris deal this year, but Stern seems hopeful the 55 countries and 55% of emissions needed to get it operational is possible.

“If we were to get over the double threshold this year that would be terrific but it all depends on individual processes… but everyone can sign,” he said.

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