The cheering that greeted America's presence at U.N. global warming talks last week was "gratifying" and a little surprising, President Obama's climate envoy, Todd Stern, said upon returning to Washington, D.C., after his first foray into international negotiations.
"I was quite taken aback for a moment, because it's not typical for people in that world to do that," Stern said of the loud applause that broke out in Bonn, Germany, after he pledged to a crowd of staid diplomats that America will "make up for lost time" in reaching a global emissions treaty.
"I was just kind of cranking through my speech, and I looked up a bit surprised and pleased," Stern recalled. "It was quite gratifying to get a good reception. There's no question that in the absence of U.S. leadership and engagement for the past eight years, there was a lot of pent-up hopefulness and desire for the United States to indicate that we're back."
In his first interview since being tapped to lead the global negotiations toward a new international emissions treaty, Stern acknowledged criticism from Europe's left and America's right on everything from emissions targets to raising money to help vulnerable countries confront climate change amid the newfound international goodwill. He also distanced the administration from the possibility that the United States could impose an import tax on countries that don't put a price on carbon.
But he stood firm on the main goals he has twice outlined since joining the Obama administration: that America will return to 1990 emissions levels by 2020, that the government is intent upon building a clean-energy, low-carbon economy, and that fast-developing nations like China must take serious -- but still unspecified -- steps to brake their output of greenhouse gas emissions.
'The Chinese are actually doing a lot'
"It is important to take cognizance of the fact that the Chinese are actually doing a lot," Stern said. "They have a significant energy intensity target, renewable target and auto standards that, to date, are higher than our own, and a whole number of not insignificant efficiency standards. So they are doing things, without a doubt."
Together, the United States and China release about 41 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Neither is currently bound by international commitments to reduce emissions. In hammering out a new treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, world leaders are aiming to craft a measure that demands serious actions from both countries.
For the United States, that will mean ambitious targets. Less clear is what form the "actions" from China, India, and other countries whose economies are growing fast but where millions of people still live without electricity and on less than $2 per day will take. Some proposals call for the so-called "emerging economies" to slow the rate of growth and agree to take actual caps on emissions in two or three decades. Others are calling for full commitments -- U.N. climate code for legally binding acts.
America's new negotiating team under Obama has not spelled out precisely what it hopes to see from China, and Stern only pointed out -- as he did in a major speech in Washington, D.C., last month -- that if unchecked, developing country emissions could push the world to dangerous levels of warming even with major action from the United States and others (ClimateWire, March 4).
"The Chinese need to take action at a level of ambition that keeps it possible for the world to be on the longer-range trajectory that it needs to be on," he said.
Stern also put some space between the administration and the threat that U.S. legislation capping emissions could include a tax on imports from countries that do not also put a price on carbon. The proposal, backed by steel and manufacturing interests as well as many Democrats on Capitol Hill, is aimed at protecting American industry from Chinese competition. Analysts worry that such a move could spark a trade war.
Last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu acknowledged that the so-called border adjustment tax would "level the playing field" between U.S. companies and those not obligated to reduce emissions under proposed domestic law.
No administration position on border tax
"That's not administration policy at this point," Stern said of the carbon levy. "It's out there, and it's undoubtedly going to be debated. I'm sure if it happens, it's not going to be popular with other countries," he said.
But, he added, "We haven't taken any administration position in support of a policy like that, and we do as a general matter take as a given ... that whatever we mean to do, be consistent with our trade obligations."
Right now the major vehicle for enacting a cap-and-trade system is a sweeping climate and energy bill that House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) unveiled last week.
The proposal aims to curb U.S. emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, with a midcentury target of 83 percent reductions of greenhouse gases. While the long-term goal is consistent with the Obama aministration's plan to curb heat-trapping gases, it goes further over the course of this decade.
Delegates at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Bonn hailed the more powerful midterm targets, calling them a strong sign as countries work toward a final deal in Copenhagen at the end of the year. Stern -- who has warned repeatedly that America is politically unable to curb greenhouse gas output 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as Europe would like -- declined to say whether the Democrats' target is reachable.
"I think that generally, the administration sees the Waxman-Markey bill as pointing in exactly the same direction that the president is trying to point in terms of building a low-carbon economy, which is a huge endeavor with enormous economic potential," Stern said.
It remains unclear still, Stern said, whether the U.S. commitment in a Copenhagen agreement will be reflected in a specific target or other actions. He also claimed ignorance as to whether President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would attend the December talks in Copenhagen.
"I have no idea," Stern said. "All I know is that I'll be there with a big U.S. delegation behind me."