U.S. negotiator warns Kyoto fight could derail climate talks

The smoldering international battle over the future of the Kyoto Protocol is a "legitimately difficult" issue -- but not one that should overshadow the practical work of fighting climate change, U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern said yesterday.

In an interview with ClimateWire yesterday, Stern said the U.S. goal is to keep nations focused on bringing to life agreements made in Cancun, Mexico, last year to create a Green Climate Fund, develop technology centers and establish guidelines for tracking countries' carbon-slashing commitments.

"We could be looking at something really good in a few years if we keep our nose to the grindstone," Stern said, outlining a vision of a functioning fund protecting countries from weather-related climate impacts and hubs spurring clean technology development in poor countries within the next two years.

"I think that would be a big deal," he said. "Let's not let some legitimately very difficult issues that were not resolved in Cancun capsize the whole effort."

Stern's comments come as the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases prepare to meet in Brussels next week for the Major Economies Forum. There and beyond, Kyoto is expected to claim center stage.

Developing nations want treaty's future settled

Indeed, the fight has already begun. Friction over Kyoto at the year's first U.N. climate meeting earlier this month nearly derailed the creation of a basic agenda toward the year-end climate conference in Durban, South Africa. From Tuvalu to Grenada, vulnerable countries said they were not interested in discussing "technical" issues until future climate change commitments are nailed down.

The first phase of the 1997 treaty, which requires only developed countries to cut emissions, ends next year. Developing countries are pressing for wealthy ones to submit new targets for a second phase beginning in 2013. Wealthy nations, in turn, are resisting because the U.S. is not a party to Kyoto and because the pact still counts economic powerhouses like China as "developing" and not bound to any legal commitments.


The U.S. flatly refuses to enter any treaty that does not treat China, India and other emerging economies as legal equals. But those countries are not yet willing to enter a legally binding treaty, particularly when America, the world's top historical emitter, has no solid plan to cut carbon. So far, nations have found no way around the impasse and instead have opted each year to kick the issue down the road. Many say Durban is the last stop.

Stern did not offer a solution of his own. Instead, he called for countries to once again find a way around the Kyoto debate.

"It's not that those issues aren't important, but they're tough. There's a reason we haven't agreed upon them yet. Let's not let that discussion derail the concrete progress that could be made," he said.

U.S. wants major developing nations committed

At the same time, Stern threw a wrench in a proposal that Mexican Ambassador Luis de Alba and a top U.S. think tank have floated: that countries might finesse the Kyoto fight in Durban by agreeing to general language confirming that the end goal for everyone is a legally binding agreement.

"That kind of solution might work," Stern conceded. But, he quickly added, only if the language made clear that all major emitters would agree to take on parallel legal commitments.

"We would not accept silence on this point as something that would be viable," Stern said. "The mandate would have to be clear."

At the heart of the debate is the question of how big a burden emerging countries must bear in fighting climate change. In a speech later today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stern is expected to outline two options for what he describes as an "evolution" in the way climate responsibilities are allocated among nations.

Both would effectively shatter the rubric under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that divides developed and developing nations. Stern has long argued that the second category, referred to in U.N.-lingo as "non-Annex 1" is too broad and outdated, treating wealthy carbon giants like China -- on par with poverty-stricken and energy-poor nations like Chad.

Meanwhile, Stern said yesterday, he believes the U.S. will meet its own pledge to cut carbon about 17 percent below 2005 levels this decade, despite congressional opposition.

"We're not backing off from that, and I don't see any reason that we should not be able to do that," Stern said.

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