US climate negotiator: We’ll only know how Russia will behave when we walk into the room

US lead negotiator on climate, Todd Stern. Geneva, September 2010. [Eric Bridiers/US Mission/Flickr]

The joint announcement of US and Chinese post-2020 climate targets last week has put valuable momentum behind UN talks to secure a legally binding global target for CO2 emissions, says Todd Stern. But there is no guarantee that Russia will not use the negotiations for political leverage in the Ukraine conflict, he warns.

Todd Stern is the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, the US’s leading negotiator on climate in international talks. Appointed in January 2009, he was previously the senior White House negotiator at the Kyoto Protocol and Buenos Aires negotiations, under the Clinton administration. Stern spoke to reporters, including EURACTIV’s deputy news editor James Crisp, yesterday (18 November).

Tell us about last week’s joint announcement by the US and China. 

We announced our intention to reduce emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels, by 2025. China announced, for the first time, a peak for its CO2 emissions of around 2030, with “best efforts” to peak before that time.

They also made a very consequential target of increasing their share of non-fossil energy to 20%, by 2020. If you look at the numbers, it is a very significant target. 

Our target, the 28%, is essentially on a straight line path from the 17% we expect to be at by 2020, all the way up to 80% by 2050. That would be roughly comparable to the EU’s newly announced target of 40% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030.  

Between (us), and the EU, and China, we now have about 50% of global emissions. Having come forward with early targets […] will hopefully provide momentum for the negotiations and encourage other countries to also come forward with early announcements of their intended targets.  

The President also announced plans for the US to contribute $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, joining other nations that have pledged support, including Germany, France, Japan and a couple of countries on the old developing countries side of the climate divide, like Mexico and Korea.  

We’re obviously about to start the COP meeting in Lima [a climate change conference in December]. I think it’s going to be an important meeting, as a means of paving the way for Paris [where the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference will be held]. I think we have some good momentum. There are still some hard issues for Paris and these negotiations are never easy but I think we have an opportunity to do something which could be quite significant.  

Was the Australians’ refusal to commit to the Green Climate Fund at the G20 summit last week a disappointment? What kind of pledges are needed at Berlin [where a pledging conference will be held on Thursday]? 

I think we are pretty close, in terms of the pledges, to $10 billion, I think it is nine plus.  We were hoping we would have an initial capitalisation that was around ten and we may still get there. Whether we get there in the course of next week or in the next couple of months, I don’t think it really matters. I would hope we are very much in the vicinity of ten billion, as a start. 

I am not going to comment on Australia per se. Obviously, we think the more countries that contribute the better and we include all countries that have the capability to do so would step forward.

There’s opposition to climate change policy in Congress. Where will the money come from?  

With respect to finance, it’s a different situation to the actions we are taking to reduce emissions. Those actions that the President has already announced are based on executive authority he has, generally premised on legislation that’s been passed previously, such as the Clean Air Act. So we can take a lot of action without Congress.  

When it comes to financial contributions,  we absolutely do need Congress because Congress controls the purse strings. So we will need congressional support. I think we have had a pretty good record of getting significant financial contributions so far in the last several years. Even before this election, climate change has not been the most popular issue in Congress, but we have managed to get funding. But certainly there will be challenges there.  

What’s needed to get the US across the line of the emissions target? Playing devil’s advocate, not very much when you take the shale boom into account. 

No, that’s not true. On the US side, the whole shale development has absolutely been significant, but there are a whole suite of actions that have been taken, (and) some that need to be taken, that form an important part of making our reductions. It goes way beyond what is happening in shale. But obviously shale is a part of it. 

In general, the US has been very aggressively focused on climate action in the last couple of years. The President announced his climate action plan almost about a year and a half ago. It has been driving forward a broad range of fronts, the most important of which is the announcement of a proposed rule to cut emissions in the power sector by 30%, by 2030. 

How will you convince the big countries, the Brazils and Indias, that this is not just China continuing to pump up emissions and then just sit at that level? 

Regarding China [if you look at the analysis], you would see that peaking by 2030 is a significant improvement on what would likely happen without new policy.  

The other part of the Chinese target from last week was a target of 20% share of non-fossil energy. In order to meet that target, they’ll need to add somewhere between 850-1000 gigawatts of renewable or nuclear energy by 2030. That’s more than all the coal that exists in China now. That’s a vast amount of renewable and nuclear power that they are going to have to add to meet that 20% target.  

What influence has the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions had on climate talks?  How can you avoid the talks being turned into a political football in Paris?  

We have managed, I think, to work in a reasonably constructive way with Russia on climate change in the past number of years. In terms of larger political issues involving Russia, I don’t have any comment on it. I am hoping we can continue to work in a reasonably constructive way on climate, and we will have to see.  

But it hasn’t come up? No one has said “We don’t want to be talking to you while you have sanctions against us”?  

I think we really won’t know until we go into the room in Lima and see if there’s any kind of change in the way Russia is conducting itself on this issue. I just don’t know yet. 

You’re the lead negotiator for the US, but there are two Commissioners dealing with energy and climate change [Commissioner for Energy Union Maroš Šef?ovi? and Energy and Climate Change Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete]. Is the distinction between the two clear to you?

I am expecting that Mr Cañete will be in Lima and be my counterpart there. I think both of them are going to have some role on energy and climate going forward, but I will leave it to the EU to divide their responsibilities.

The EU likes to style itself as a world leader on climate change. Does the US recognise that perception? 

It is in my judgment, a critical player in the world and a critical partner for us. I have full-on admiration for the EU on climate change.

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