U.S. Cites Flaws in UN’s Climate Talks, Says Treaty Effort ‘Unworkable’

The U.S. government’s lead envoy on climate change said the United Nations talks aimed at negotiating a binding treaty to curb global warming are based on “unrealistic” expectations that are “not doable.”

Todd Stern, the State Department official who heads the U.S. delegation at the 192-nation discussions, said that a meeting this week in Bangkok was “marked by struggles over the agenda” similar to “bickering over the shape of the negotiating table.”

The comments were the strongest criticism yet from the U.S. of the process aimed at capping greenhouse gases. They reduce the chances of a breakthrough this year and may distract from work at a UN meeting in New York today that will sketch options for raising $100 billion a year in climate aid.

“In the ideal world, a binding treaty would be the instrument of choice,” said Elliot Diringer, vice president of international strategies at the Pew Center On Global Climate. “But new binding commitments are still years off, and there are other options. We’ve been so obsessed with binding outcomes we’ve largely ignored those options. It’s been binding or nothing, and we’ve gotten largely nothing.”

With President Barack Obama facing re-election next year and some of his Republican opponents questioning the science underpinning the climate talks, the government hasn’t yet shown willingness to set binding targets for reducing fossil fuel emissions. Stern said the goal of agreeing to a treaty was always out of reach.

‘High Expectations’

“A lot of what was bound up in the very high expectations at the start of this whole process was unrealistic,” Stern said in an interview last night after speaking at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York. “I don’t think it’s necessary that there be internationally binding emission caps as long as you’ve got national laws and regulations. What I am saying is it’s not doable.”

Stern’s comments suggest rich nations and developing nations remain too divided to make progress on establishing worldwide limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The diplomat said talks scheduled for December in Durban, South Africa, should focus on writing the rulebook for institutions that would monitor worldwide agreements on aid and forest protection.

At the UN talks in Cancun four months ago, countries agreed to put forward national emissions commitments, share technology for clean energy systems and establish a climate fund to help poorer nations adapt to rising sea levels and more intense storms.

‘Don’t Need a Treaty’

“You don’t need a treaty to do that,” Stern said in the interview. “You can do that right now. You say ‘Oh well, it’s not legally binding.’ So what?”

He said a legally binding treaty of the sort envoys sought to write in Copenhagen two years ago is “unworkable,” and national regulations hold the key to stanching CO2 output.

“Legally binding international obligations to cut emissions are not necessary,” Stern said at the New Energy Finance conference. “It is the national plans of countries, written into law and regulations, that count and that bind.”

Envoys from more than 190 nations finish a meeting tomorrow in Bangkok to sketch out an agenda for the Durban meeting. China, India and Brazil are pushing the U.S. and Europe to make deeper emissions reductions. The industrial nations want developing ones to agree to cuts of their own.

“There’s a very good argument to say the moment you make the obligations legally binding, you will diminish the ambition of what countries are proposing to do,” Stern said. “It would cause people to offer up less.”

‘Firewall’ Holdup

Stern said developing nations are seeking to preserve a “firewall” that excludes them from commitments to reduce carbon output.

“There are also ideas floating around that are more likely to divert and divide than to produce results,” Stern said. “For example, some would propose to apportion the ‘carbon space’ in the atmosphere and parcel it out based on so-called ‘historical responsibility.’ This is a non-starter in the real world for many reasons.”

Stern suggested the U.S. may circumvent the UN process saying it’s “not the sole platform” for climate protection.

“It also has the potential to be a platform focused mostly on rhetorical thrust and parry, with a thick overlay of accusation and blame,” Stern said. “The one vision is useful. The other is not.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Efstathiou Jr. in New York at jefstathiou@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net

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