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I won't justify Trump's climate change policy for a second: Todd Stern

US diplomats are working in Katowice to implement the Paris Agreement, says Todd Stern, who was one of the architects of the Paris Agreement as America's special envoy on climate change when Barack Ob

Nitin Sethi  |  Katowice 

Todd Stern
Todd Stern was the United States' chief negotiator at the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. (Credit: Nitin Sethi| Business Standard)

US diplomats are working in Katowice to implement the Paris Agreement, says Todd Stern, who was one of the architects of the as America’s special envoy on when Barack Obama was the President. Stern explained to Nitin Seth how he sees differentiation being implemented in the rulebook.

You were one of the most important architects of the Here at Katowice we hear one side say the rulebook is moving away from what Paris provides. The other side says they have a different way of interpreting the same pact. Where do you see the state of play at the moment at Katowice?

You know I think that that were obviously in the last period of trying to get this rulebook done. I think that there are still some open issues and left a lot of progress has been made. It's a little bit hard to say with the text (with) still ongoing negotiations--it's a little hard for me to predict exactly. I think broadly speaking, the was built on a number of important innovations with regard to the way climate negotiations had happened. It developed a kind of hybrid between bottom-up and top-down approach.

So, one of the most important elements of the agreement was the nationally determined nature of essentially the targets, but in the lingo nationally determined contributions. Without that you wouldn't have had an agreement because the premise was that it was to be an agreement that involved everybody. This was not going to be the kind of effort that was embodied in Kyoto where we had one side--developed countries--required to take action. We were moving away from that, and that really was the premise then the only way that we saw to have an agreement that could cover everybody was to make it nationally determined--to have a bottomup so that countries could, hopefully with as much information as possible, could make their own choices about what was what worked for their own country their own economy. So that you could immediately take out of the equation a concern that a country would be forced to do things that were inconsistent with their core priorities of growth development poverty eradication and so forth. So that was the key that opened the door to being able to do an agreement. At the same time there are some elements that are more topdown which is not intended to mean and shouldn't mean overly burdensome and cumbersome but in which you have certain rules, procedures and guidelines with respect to essentially the accountability aspects of the agreement. So, it's not nationally determined to decide whether you're going to do a nationally determined contributions. You need to do that. There is a there are rules being written right now about how the transparency and review system would work. And that's not it's not every country deciding for themselves how they're going to report and how they're going to be reviewed. That's got to be that that's got to be an effort that involves all countries.

Going back to the indices there was a certain notion that there would be certain information included with your NDC when you when you submitted so that everybody knows what everybody else is actually doing so that they're comprehensible. If you go all the way back to Copenhagen and the submissions that were made after Copenhagen it was hard to compare. Sometimes it's hard to understand what a party was talking about.

You are referring to the Cancun pledges?

Yes. Yeah. Those pledges sometimes they were clear some things really weren't there at all. They were confusing. People generally understand what the other one was doing and it's hard to sort of reconcile them together. So I think having gone through that experience there was an understanding that some basic parameters needed to be laid down so that no matter what country we're talking about they put something forward. Other countries get it understand what's going on. So you had that basic top-down bottom-up.

You had a hybrid with respectable people form the agreement. Some of it's legally binding some of it's not. There were there were a number of elements like that that were that made Paris possible.

As one the key architects of the Agreement, you perhaps know better what were the compromises that different countries made at that point...there was a way you interpreted differentiation that made Paris possible.

We had a modification in the nature of differentiation as it had been practised. So absolutely recognizing the principle of differentiation but in at least three ways that I would point out differentiation changed. If you if you take as one model, it truly bifurcated system - Kyoto Protocol - everything was developed countries do X developing countries do Y or developed countries to X and developing countries don't have anything whatever. So three things that that kind of altered that paradigm while still preserving the underlying principle that there was differentiation between different countries. Number one, you have nationally determined structure right. So you have now not all developed to X and Y but you have a differentiation across the whole spectrum of countries. If you think about differentiation in the first instance designed to ensure developing countries that they would not be forced to do things that would be inimical to their economic growth and development so forth.

That was that nationally determined structure was a way to do that but without putting people in two categories. Number two is a very important provision that is essentially the differentiation provision in the report and review section the transparency transparent section. Article 13 of the Paris Agreement and instead of saying that first of all instead of setting up two different systems you have one. But the pivotal provision which is from thirteen point two of that agreement says that flexibility shall be provided to those developing countries that need it in light of their capacity. By definition that developing countries in theory could be eligible for that but it was only if you had a capacity problem.

Would that be something that the global community would decide - if you have a capacity problem or not - or was that to be also nationally determined?

We'll get to that one minute. Let me just finish. The third element that I think is provocative and some evolution in the nature of differentiation. And that is that the classic principle, probably repeated more than any other principle, more than any other words since the original framework convention was done in 1992, of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

That's like the mantra that every time a person can say in their sleep. In the context of the joint announcement between President Obama and President Xi it was a statement that was that was negotiated and that statement added a few words to that classic sort of catechism which is - it's differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, but, I believe in light of different national circumstances. Well what does that mean?

I mean that's a kind of somewhat opaque phrase but I think a fair interpretation certainly. I think we intended but I think I think it's sort of evident from the words themselves. If it's in light of different national circumstances - it links the whole thing to material circumstances and material circumstances change over time. South Korea is not the country it was in in the 1960s and 1970s or even the 1980s and so on and so forth. Countries change, we hope countries change in the direction of all that. But, whether they do or they don't, that phrase captures the notion that there is some change and so that is it is not meant to be a completely static concept.

On the flexibility issue…

Ok, on the transparency and the flexibility issue. That was fine for Paris but the exercise we're engaged in now is is an exercise that is based on the implementation of Paris and essentially trying to take Paris from being an agreement on paper to a living regime. That is not just again operational in concept but operational for real. And so all of these various provisions in Paris obviously need to be to be spelled out, there need to be guidelines. That is what they're doing here. And so how do you make operational the flexibility concept. Well in theory you could you could have a panel of judges decide if somebody deserves to have flexibility. Or, in principle you can negotiate criteria. But it's a practical matter. And I think people who have worked effectively in this process understand that there's a very political process you're never going be able negotiate those things that nobody is going to agree on what the criteria were so you in essence get forced back to self-selection. In order for that to be faithful to Paris, to be consistent with the notion that flexibility is only available on the basis of the capacity need, then you need a couple of safeguards.

Such as?

Such as, a country who is to raise their hand and says “I'm taking flexibility” should explain what the capacity constraints are. What is your capacity problem. This is not a treatise. This can be a paragraph. It can be short. But what is the reason and not just that the reason is capacity right. We know that - that's by definition. So that is the capacity issue. So that's one thing and the other thing is I guess I would I would look some kind of a nationally-determined basis, on a country making its own calculations about these things. But some sense of what we need to do to try to alleviate this capacity with whatever capacity building support it might need.

Remember Paris set up a new special little window for capacity building initiative for transparency. So apart from all of the different pots of money and different kinds of needs for finance and support a special one was set up for countries who had a capacity building need to report and that is now administered under the global environment facility. Again, I think in my judgment and a lot of people think there needs to be a couple of safeguards to keep this system honest.

On a more personal note. You drew close personal relationships, particularly with Xie Zhenhua of China, even as you argued and fought hard with him as a negotiator. And, if am not mistaken that helped you two find common ground. How do negotiators manage these personal friendships through these tough negotiations with what one might call the opponent?

You know, I found it to be not hard actually if you are negotiating sometimes hard with, and I did that no one more than my friend Xie Zhenhua, if its infused with a kind of respect for the other side. I would be lying if I said that I never walked out of a negotiating session or to punch somebody. I am sure he felt the same way. I know it. I could see it sometimes that he wanted to strangle me and sometimes I felt the same way but also we had respect for each other. I certainly respected his talent and abilities.

From the beginning I could see he was smart and able and sometimes cunning and strategic and wily and but you know when you're wrestling somebody for a while, and if you do have that respect, then you know you can become friends. And a lot of it's just chemistry too. And of course we both knew that we were important to each other. I said to him - I've looked back at my notes last year - I saw back in 2009 that I said to him in one of our bilateral meetings then that I thought that could become a positive pillar in the US-China relationship, which is always difficult.

I mean I've been asked a by a bunch lately it be so hard now there are trade difficulties with China and that must be so hard. Of course, the trade issue particular trade issues right now, or the trade war that some people sometimes refer to it, that may be a sort of especially aggravated piece of business. But, if you look back when we were there one issue after another was very difficult. It’s not like when I said when I made that comment to to Minister Xie about the potential to make it a positive pillar. It's not like had been an area of cooperation between the US and China. We were we were historic antagonists. But I started talking about that then because I thought that that was true for the bilateral relationship and I thought it would be a helpful way to try to construct our work together on climate change. And over time I'd have to ask him. But, but it certainly became the case that it was. That most sort of dramatically played out when the two presidents did that joint announcement together bashing. But when I when I sat with President Obama at his bilateral with President Xi in Paris first I recalled President Xi talking about that idea. I do not remember his exact words but he said that climate change was a positive. There was there was a real reason for both of us to want to try to develop relationship and that's we did.

A perception floats in public that under President Trump the US has stepped out of the Paris Agreement. But, at Katowice we find that the US is as deeply engaged at the moment in several negotiations behind closed doors. Some portray the US here attempting to rework the Paris Agreement through the rulebook in a shape that President Trump would also accept eventually. Would you agree with that view?

Definitely No.

Could you then explain what is the US doing here at Katowice then?

I disagree with that actually. I would not take one second to try to justify President Trump's policy on climate change, either internationally or domestically. I disagree. With basically everything he's doing. I think he's completely wrongheaded - his approach and the approach of many of the political people he's brought in to EPA etc. So what I'm saying now has nothing to do with defending top administration. I could not disagree more. On climate change and most other things.

But, I think that the career civil service diplomats who have been doing what they've been doing over the last two years - many of them have been there for a long time - they worked with President Bush, they worked with democrats and with republicans.

I am a political person but I have enormous respect for the career people who serve administrations of both kinds. The people who have been in the lingo of international diplomacy those are the technical people and then there are political people in the sense that they're basically ministerial level and above. So our technical people have been acting in a professional manner in a way that has been designed to implement the Paris agreement, to bring it to life with these rules and procedures and guidelines and so forth and have been doing that in a way meant to be faithful to the Paris Agreement.

So the Paris agreement means sort of different to different people and lies in the eyes of the beholder. But I don't have much disagreement at all with what I've seen come out of the US side when it comes to mitigation, transparency or other things, they have been pretty straight up.

I find it contradictory that President Trump has said he'd like to get out of the Paris Agreement but the negotiators who represent him and work under his command are in some sense actually trying to deliver on the Paris agreement from whichever perspective they think the Paris agreement should deliver. Isn’t there a contradiction there?

I don't think there's a contradiction exactly but I can certainly see it looking puzzling to people from the outside. But look it is the call, the decision of the Trump administration as to whether to send people. It's not like anybody's been doing something that they're not supposed to be doing. Top administration could cut-off completely and we to switch off the US team anytime they want. They could have switched off the US team the day after the President gave his speech in the Rose Garden. But they've made the judgment that made sense to have US team. It is a much smaller team. They have not at all had the kind of prominent role that the US had in the past. But they are honestly people I think there are many, many negotiators from countries who tend to agree with the United States.

In some countries you tend not to agree to the United States to respect the work that they do and the knowledge that they have the expertise that they have over the two of us.

The last question there has been a suddenly a sense of tone a change in the optics around these negotiations. Conversations are abuzz about how the 1.5 report gets acknowledged than about the rulebook. Some countries believe that that's actually drawing away from the task athand in Katowice which is to write the rulebook. Would you agree with that perception?

I think two things here. I think that the one point five report is very important and has resonated all over the world and will continue to be an important report. I'm glad to see that it's come out and it is kind of strong. To me the things that's most striking about it is the degree to which it kind of says that this historic benchmark - the sort of scientific safety zone if you will - that had been kind of out there for a very long time is two degrees. Things do not look so good even with two degrees and that's going to be extraordinarily difficult to meet, never mind about the one point five.

It is very important to think the notion that the people who spend their lives doing climate change in this once a year convening of all the countries in the world that they wouldn't be would want to say something about that the notion that they would be gripped by that is completely understandable. That is A. But B, it gets me a little bit to some partial agreement with what you said in your question, I think we don't want to let the emotions that relate to that report and upset that people feel over the actions by US Saudis, Russians and is all very understandable. But the reaction has more to do with the emotions that get excited here. It is not as if we don't have the right word here nobody will know this report exists. This report here is like radiating all over the world now. It is on the front page of newspapers all over the world, people know about it.

Nonetheless, people here are you know are the climate negotiators they shouldn't be silent about it and they need to say something. So all of that we've got to process. But job one in this process is to produce the rulebook and to send a signal about ambition going forward. You really got to get the rule book done right. You can send a nice signal about ambition and have the rule book crash - that's not so good. Having said what I said about the report I do think we should find words that are going to be able to get through the process here. They're not going to be the perfect words because the perfect words that people would like to say we already know won't get through the process. And if we try again, they still won't get through the process. We're all big boys and girls here.

We need to find a way to get some words that will get through the process and not be hijacked or you know kind of undermine the effort to get the rule book done. Let's get this done now and then let's make a stronger statement about ambition as we can also recognize, because of some number of parties and unfortunately in my own country at the moment given our current state of White House politics, it is not going to be the strongest thing that's going to be said - not the kind of statement that would get through President Obama. But you know you just have to do the best you can and get the rulebook done.

First Published: Fri, December 14 2018. 22:36 IST