U.S. Shows Signs of Flexibility at UN Climate Discussions

President Barack Obama’s envoy at United Nations global-warming negotiations said he’s willing to participate in discussions on the issue of fairness in how nations plan to curb climate change, paving the way for drafting a new treaty by 2015.

Todd Stern, the State Department official heading the U.S. delegation at the UN climate conference in Doha, also acknowledged yesterday that the U.S. has more work to do to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.

“As President Obama said just a few weeks ago, we need to do more and we intend to do more,” he told delegates.

Stern’s remarks, coming three days before the meeting concludes, addressed two of the three thorniest topics that divide more than 190 nations working toward a pact on limiting greenhouse gases, starting in 2020.

“It’s a big shift,” said Alden Meyer, who follows the talks for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview yesterday. “The tone was positive and the offer was positive. The issue he didn’t touch on was finance, and unless there’s a resolution on that, they’re going to say the U.S. is just talking.”

Stern, speaking to a gathering of environment ministers, said he was open to a discussion on the principle of “equity” and a provision in existing global warming agreements calling for “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or CBDR.

Principle Issue

Those concepts seek to ensure that all nations are treated fairly in reining in greenhouse gases, taking into account their wealth and historical pollution rates. Richer countries are concerned that developing countries will hide behind the principles to avoid fossil-fuel reductions.

The issue has been a sticking point for almost two decades. It created the division between industrial nations, which were required under the Kyoto Protocol to cut fossil-fuel emissions, and developing ones that to this day have no mandatory targets. Since that treaty was adopted in 1997, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest polluter.

The U.S. has pushed for CBDR references to be removed from negotiation texts at the talks. China, India and Brazil lead developing nations in saying CBDR is a principle that was set down in the original 1992 treaty that started the climate talks and that the U.S. ratified.

‘A Signal’

“I did want to send a signal that the United States isn’t trying to say we don’t want to discuss equity or we don’t want to discuss CBDR because that’s not the case,” Stern told reporters in Doha following his speech to delegates.

He also said the U.S. will go further to combat climate change. Developing countries are demanding steeper emissions cuts from the U.S. as a precondition before they take on their own targets. The current U.S. goal is to reduce greenhouse gases about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, a target that Obama administration officials have ruled out changing.

Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute in Washington, said the U.S.’s public acknowledgement that the issue of equity must be part of the negotiations is “particularly important.”

This issues of fairness among countries “must be at the core of any future climate agreement,” she said. “This process has to address it, or it remains the giant elephant in the room.”


Jonathan Pershing, the No. 2 U.S. climate negotiator in Doha, told reporters yesterday that the issue of equity is “quite a complicated one.”

For the U.S., the critical components of any new climate deal include flexibility in how nations contribute to the effort to fight climate change and “national determination,” according to Pershing.

“The notion that one set of countries would dictate what another says and does is not where we start,” Pershing said. “We start at the other end with what the countries themselves can bring to the table.”

Gambian envoy Pa Ousman Jarju said he agrees that countries shouldn’t be forced to do “what they aren’t capable of doing,” though added that once nations agree to take action, they “should be able to honor what they agreed on.”

Central Issues

Work toward a 2015 climate deal almost collapsed because of the issue last year in Durban, South Africa. Countries led by India objected to moving forward without greater assurances that poor nations won’t be subject to the same sort of requirements under a treaty as wealthy economies, which are historically the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

At this year’s gathering in Doha, India repeated its stance that equity and CBDR must remain at the forefront of the talks.

Stern suggested the U.S. has more flexibility in dealing with the issue of CBDR, saying, “I think people to some extent were misinterpreting where we were, which is not trying to avoid a conversation about these things. I wanted to make it clear that we are ready, willing and able” to have a discussion on the issues.

Stern said not doing so would mean failure in the attempt to get a new climate agreement by 2015.

Left unsaid is how the U.S. plans to bridge the gap with developing nations on finance. Three years ago, industrial nations pledged to provide $100 billion a year in aid to developing nations for projects that combat climate change. The richer nations have met a target of delivering about $30 billion in so-called fast-start funds by the end of this year, though they haven’t given details on how they’ll meet the end-of-decade target. Developing nations want a road map sketching those plans.

“The core issue is finance,” Xie Zhenhua, the lead envoy for China at the talks, told reporters. “If we can solve finance issues, it will create a very good foundation for the solving of other issues.”


Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE