Obama Administration Official Calls for Flexible Global Accord on Climate Change

By Avery Fellow  

WASHINGTON, D.C.--An international agreement on climate change has to be flexible and able to evolve to be successful, an Obama administration official said Aug. 2.

A flexible approach, such as allowing countries to develop their own legally binding targets, will be more successful than a stringent agreement to meet the global goal of limiting the rise in average temperature to less than 2 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels, said Todd Stern, the State Department's special envoy for climate change, according to prepared remarks.

Stern spoke at Dartmouth College as part of its Leading Voices in U.S. Foreign Policy lecture series.

Such an agreement may not guarantee meeting the 2 degree goal, but insisting on an agreement that would guarantee the 2 degree limit will only lead to deadlock, he said.

“It is more important to start now with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will,” Stern said.

Countries at the U.N. climate summit in Durban, South Africa, in December agreed to develop a global emissions reduction agreement by the end of 2015, which would be effective in 2020 (35 INER 45, 1/4/12).

Advantage of Flexible Agreement.

In a flexible agreement, countries could submit their own targets, and the public could provide comment after six-months to encourage countries to set more ambitious goals, Stern said.

The likelihood of all countries agreeing to a “highly prescriptive” climate agreement is low because countries will not agree to actions that could be seen to hinder growth and development, Stern said.

“The keys to making headway in this early conceptual phase of the new agreement is to be open to new ideas that can work in the real world and to keep our eyes on the prize of reducing emissions rather than insisting on old orthodoxies,” Stern said.

The agreement also has to be flexible enough to provide for future modifications, he said. Technological advancements may allow countries to make more aggressive emissions reductions commitments in the mid-2020s than in 2015, he said. Additionally, developing countries may advance to become top world economies by 2025, which would change the expectations of their action on climate change.

Informal Groupings of Countries.

The world also needs to take action outside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and create informal groupings of countries to address climate change, Stern said.

Coalitions like this already exist, he said, citing a 2009 agreement of Group of 20 nations to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and a coalition launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February to reduce short-lived climate pollutants such as methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons. More action along these lines is needed, Stern said.

Stern also urged greater national action to lower emissions, including the transformation of the U.S. energy sector to cleaner energy. Greater government investment in research and development of clean energy technologies may end up being the most important action the government takes because containing climate change likely depends on adopting technological advancements, Stern said.

He also called for national legislation, saying there is no substitute for legislation in spurring action on the level needed to transform the U.S. economy. He cited the need to make a case to Congress and the public about the benefits of moving to a clean energy economy, including a global competitive edge, cleaner air, and greater public health protections. He asked for greater vocal support of leaders in business and the military.

“Exactly what that response [to climate change] should be is a fair subject for debate, but if we can at least establish the priority of developing such a response, we'll have taken an important step forward,” Stern said.