U.S. Climate Envoy Vows Commitment to Talks but Seeks to Lower Expectations

Envoy Todd Stern, left, shown with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and GE executive Mark Norbom in Beijing last month, did not offer specifics.
Envoy Todd Stern, left, shown with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and GE executive Mark Norbom in Beijing last month, did not offer specifics. (By Greg Baker -- Pool)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 30, 2009

BERLIN, March 29 -- President Obama's chief climate-change negotiator said Sunday that the United States would be "powerfully, fervently engaged" in global talks to reduce carbon emissions but warned that a difficult path lay ahead.

Todd Stern, a Washington lawyer and former Clinton White House official, said at a U.N. conference in Bonn, Germany, that despite high expectations, Obama did not have a magic solution for fashioning a global climate-change treaty by the end of the year.

"We all have to do this together. We don't have a magic wand," he told reporters on the sidelines of the conference. "I don't think anybody should be thinking that the U.S. can ride in on a white horse and make it all work."

Stern did not offer specific policy proposals and acknowledged that Obama's negotiating team would be constricted by the domestic political challenge of winning approval from Congress. But his speech was greeted with sustained applause as many U.N. delegates and environmental groups celebrated the exit of the Bush administration, which had resisted proposals for binding reductions on carbon emissions.

"This is a new start for the U.S. delegation and the start of a new hope to solve the problem of climate change," Matthias Machnig, Germany's deputy minister of the environment, said in a speech at the conference.

U.N. delegates are trying to negotiate a global accord on the reduction of greenhouse gases in time for a December summit in Copenhagen. The accord would replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which called for many industrial nations to cut gas emissions but was rejected by the United States and a handful of other countries.

Many U.N. delegates are pushing for major cuts in greenhouse gas production -- 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels -- by 2020.

Those cuts would be deeper than Obama's recently announced goal of reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions during that time frame by 16 percent from present levels. But Stern said more ambitious targets might not be politically or economically feasible.

"Let me speak frankly here: It is in no one's interest to repeat the experience of Kyoto by delivering an agreement that won't gain sufficient support at home," Stern told the delegates.

Stern also said that any global treaty would require deeper concessions from rising economic powers such as China, Brazil and India. Many researchers have concluded that China recently surpassed the United States as the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases and that its booming industrial sector accounts for most of the world's cumulative increase each year.

"If you do the math, you simply cannot be anywhere near where science tells us we need to be if you don't have China involved, as well as other major developing countries," Stern said. "How that is captured, understood, expressed and quantified is going to be extremely important."

Environmental groups welcomed Stern's speech and have applauded Obama's proposal for a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. But they warned that the world cannot afford further delays.

"We have already lost too much time and must act, starting today," said Richard H. Moss, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund. "The pace of climate change being witnessed around the world demands quick and decisive action at all levels, local to global."

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