Lead US negotiator: Paris climate agreement must have legs

A successful Paris climate summit requires more than just a 'one-off agreement,' US climate envoy Todd Stern said Wednesday. 

Thibault Camus/AP/File
US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern attends a meeting of foreign and environment ministers last month ahead of the Paris climate summit.

In his first press conference at this year's Paris climate summit, US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern looked understandably tired. It had no doubt been a busy few days of meeting, greeting, and assuaging the concerns of the many heads of state in town for this year's highly anticipated climate negotiations.

Still, whatever Mr. Stern lacked in sleep Wednesday, he compensated for with quiet confidence in a process that has been 20 years in the making.

"We are off to a good start," Stern told the assembled press, his voice hoarse from early-stage negotiations. "We have issues that are still challenging, but we come here with a great deal of positive momentum."

That momentum is the result of 184 countries, which together produce 98 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, submitting an official climate pledge ahead of the talks here in Le Bourget, a suburb northwest of Paris. According to estimates by the United Nations, those voluntary contributions get the world about halfway to the stated goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Now, diplomats are meeting behind closed doors to hammer out the details of an agreement that will shape global energy and the climate once current pledges run their course in 2020.

The mere scope of participation in this year's talks is an impressive accomplishment, officials and observers say, and is a departure from past agreements that focused only on certain blocs of countries. But in Wednesday's press conference, Stern echoed other officials in saying that the Paris agreement would need to do more – both during this summit and beyond.

"There is broad consensus, a broad convergence, around the notion that there absolutely do need to be successive rounds of contributions," Stern said. "Otherwise we would be looking at a kind of one-off agreement. I think that's not what people have in mind. It's certainly not what we have in mind."

One key issue emerging in the talks is exactly how to make a Paris agreement continue to be meaningful long after diplomats go home and the sprawling complex in Le Bourget is dismantled. Countries are increasingly thinking of some kind of regular review process, Stern said Wednesday. Nations would agree to come back to the negotiating table every five years to reassess their emissions targets. The hope is that continued declines in renewable energy prices will make boosting climate ambitions more palatable in years to come.

Without a routine review and renewal of climate pledges, “there’s a real risk of foreclosing on the 2 degrees pathway," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We have to keep that door open,” he told a press scrum earlier Wednesday.  

Another topic buzzing through the halls of Le Bourget: whether congressional opposition to the Obama administration's climate policies will derail an emerging global consensus. On Tuesday, House Republicans passed two resolutions disapproving of the Clean Power Plan, which would regulate carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants. The move echoes similar objections by the Senate, but lacks enough votes to override an almost certain veto from President Obama.  

When asked about Tuesday's resolutions, Stern replied: "I don't actually think that has much of an effect here ... I think it produces questions. I've had countries ask me about it, but what I've said is that the Clean Power Plan rule is going to go forward."

As the Monitor reported earlier this week, US climate politics remain bitterly divided, despite a recent New York Times/CBS News poll finding that two-thirds of Americans support the US joining a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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