The United States still stands by its promise to slash global warming pollution despite the Senate's decision to abandon climate legislation this year, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said yesterday.
In an interview with ClimateWire, Stern said the Obama administration is "not backing away" from its Copenhagen pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade and more than 80 percent by mid-century. He also laced into critics who say America's failure to produce legislation this year will have dire consequences for treaty talks.
"People who frame this all around whether there is U.S. legislation or not, that if there's legislation we're in the end zone ... I don't believe that," Stern said. "It's not the magic bullet, and it's also not the thing that sinks the ship."
This week Stern's negotiating team meets in Bonn, Germany, for a mid-year United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) session aimed at developing a new global treaty. And after months of recriminations and finger-pointing over the contentious Denmark conference that produced the Copenhagen Accord, leaders say most countries are finally ready to craft some practical agreements to help make the voluntary pledges in that document a reality.
At the same time, several negotiators told ClimateWire that the Senate's inaction has produced a fresh wave of disappointment toward the United States and concern about whether America will in fact ever join a climate change treaty (see related story).
Stern maintained that while U.S. legislation cutting carbon is critical, its absence does not change the dynamics for 2010.
"The fact that we don't have it right now will certainly affect the atmospherics of the negotiations, but the fundamentals of it aren't different," he said.
"At the simplest level, nothing is changing with respect to the submission we put in the Copenhagen Accord. We're not backing away from that. Somebody asked me the other day, 'What is the U.S. going to put on the table?' There's nothing else to put on the table. We've got it on the table. The President has made it perfectly clear that he's committed to energy and climate legislation, and we will press on," he said.
There is no 'Plan B'
It's the message he and others have carried consistently across the oceans these past months as the bill's prospects dimmed. Energy attaches for various European embassies in Washington tell ClimateWire they have repeatedly asked the State Department what America's "Plan B" is for the next major climate summit scheduled for Cancun this December. The answer: There is no Plan B.
Belgian delegate Peter Wittoeck, speaking for the 27-member European Union in Bonn yesterday, said U.S. officials continue to affirm they will live up to Obama's pledge, adding, "They say they are confident that they will find a way of getting there." And in an interview with ClimateWire last week, France's lead negotiator Brice Lalonde said he heard the same tune at an informal meeting in Mexico recently. Europe, he said, has no choice but to take the United States on faith because, "Who can we trust if we cannot trust the president?"
Under the Copenhagen Accord, the United States, Europe, China, India and every other major emitting countries promised to either reduce emissions or limit the rate of emission growth. Developing countries made concessions in allowing their mitigation targets to come under international review, and industrialized countries promised to raise $30 billion for the immediate needs of vulnerable nations and $100 billion annually by 2020.
President Obama's pledge there to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels was widely derided as insufficient by Europeans and developing countries. Administration officials like Stern, however, argued that America was behind the curve on emission cuts because Congress ignored the issue during the Bush years. While near-term targets might seem small, they repeatedly pointed out, the hefty mid-century goals were really the key.
Now, policy experts say, the Obama administration has a difficult story to tell. While America could reasonably meet its 2020 promises with regulatory actions through U.S. EPA, reining in emissions over the later decades really requires legislation.
Stern, for his part, sidestepped a question about how America meets its goals after 2020, saying "The fact that there's no legislation this year in 2010 for a 2020 target doesn't begin to mean that there's not going to be legislation on this issue. ... Legislation is our primary objective, but there also will be any number of ways to move forward."
A scapegoat or a leader?
In fact, he argued, even if the United States did have a domestic bill cutting carbon already under way, other countries would still likely resist components of the Copenhagen Accord. Others went even further, suggesting that countries like China and India are happy to have American inaction as a scapegoat to mask their own objections about entering into legally binding treaty.
"It's easier to have the U.S. as a foil than not," said Mark Helmke, a top aid to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
Leaders have widely acknowledged that a final treaty in Cancun is unlikely. While the actual goal of that conference remains unclear, negotiators repeatedly said in Bonn today that they want to see "progress" there on issues like transparency, money for vulnerable countries and protecting tropical forests.
Stern echoed that as well, saying the United States doesn't want to see Cancun "as just a way station that kind of marks time until the next session next year in South Africa."
He described himself as "realistically hopeful" for the future, saying he believes that countries, including the America, will eventually sign a global treaty and that the U.S. Congress will enact climate legislation.
Said Stern, "Do I think that we are going to permanently fail to take on the obvious critical challenges facing this country? I sure hope the hell not."