Exclusive Video: Top U.S. Climate Negotiator Todd Stern Questions China’s Signal to Accept Binding Targets

DURBAN — There’s much speculation at this week’s international climate talks in Durban, South Africa about China’s apparent willingness to consider a binding carbon reduction agreement after 2020.

When China’s chief climate negotiator, Su Wei, said on Saturday that his country would “not rule out the possibility of [a] legally binding agreement,” and explained that “it depends upon the negotiations,” the frameworks being debated in Durban took on a new light.

However, the chief U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, is expressing caution over the statements from Chinese officials. In an interview with Climate Progress, Stern said he needed to hear more from Wei before he took the comments seriously.

“I don’t think it’s anything different when you deconstruct it than we’ve seen before. But I have to meet with my counterpart, Mr. Xie [Zhenhua, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission], to see if there’s anything new.”

American officials have demanded that large developing emitters like China and India be a part of any binding agreement in order to consider participating in new negotiations.

Speaking to Climate Progress, Christine Figueres, executive secretary the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, called the hard line U.S. negotiating position “hamstrung.” But she also agreed with Stern that the statements from Chinese officials don’t yet mean much:

“It’s interesting. We hear those kinds of comments all the time from parties at these negotiations. But we’ll see what affect that’s going to have,” said Figueres.

If progress is made on some of the key frameworks being worked on in Durban, it could help bring the Chinese on board to a long-term commitment. Yesterday, Sterns’ counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, said that he would need to see progress on certain issues during the Durban talks.

Xie said that he would need to see progress on an international fund to help developing countries deploy clean energy and climate adaptation projects, as well as craft language that would continue to define “common but differentiated responsibilities” under a new global pact. Traditionally that phrase has been interpreted in the context of the Kyoto Protocol as requiring developed countries to have binding emission targets and developing countries have no binding targets. In subsequent agreements it has come to imply that developing countries don’t have to agree to the same level of transparency for the cuts they make.

That’s exactly the sort of thing American negotiators have pushed back on when considering a binding agreement beyond 2020. The key question is how firm the U.S. will be in this stance as the negotiations proceed.

Speaking to Climate Progress, Stern said that this meeting should be focusing on the substantive agenda achieved at last year’s climate summit in Cancun which, if implemented, would create a set of institutions and agreements that would cover some 85 percent of global emissions:

“If you look at Cancun from last year, it was a very, very important agreement to make commitments by all major economies, an agreement to set up a transparency system so we could see what everyone else is doing, an agreement to set up a green fund, a technology center, an adaptation and so forth. So there’s a whole lot of things that we agreed to do. Now the issue is, are we going to do them? And what we’re trying to do this year is make significant progress to get those different institutions actually stood up so that we can move forward.”

Nonetheless, the key question for most of the current 15,746 participants wandering the Durban climate conference is what the Chinese mean by their recent set of claims, and how they’ll impact the focus of this meeting.

Watch the video with Todd Stern:

UPDATE: Todd Stern said Tuesday that the he had spoken this morning with Xie and came to the same conclusion that the Chinese had not materially changed their negotiating stance.  While they are open to a binding commitment in the future, many conditions will have to be made and they are not ready now for the kind of agreement the U.S. has been asking for. Climate Progress also reported today that Artur Runge-Metzger, the EU chief negotiator, had come to a similar conclusion about the Chinese position. The Chinese delegation has not yet clarified their position any further.

5 Responses to Exclusive Video: Top U.S. Climate Negotiator Todd Stern Questions China’s Signal to Accept Binding Targets

  1. Raul M. says:

    It probably won’t take long for US business and political leaders to show that they are more interested in the weather anomalies charts being red white and blue or not than to change what the charts show for the better.
    Many of our leaders have already shown that they are willing to leave our climate negotiators standing alone to answer for why not do something of improvement for our common climate.
    Once read a Nobel Lit. author tell of a conversation with a woman who had children explain how she didn’t feel the same as her husband in that she didn’t want more children but he thought of the future of their unborn offspring of having rights also. She though only to explain her feelings of her present children who were too young to have children of their own. The new concept should well be beyond the assumption that the children of today will necessarily have the possibilities of making their own choices knowing that their parents had done well.
    Weather may change the odds of success!

  2. john atcheson says:

    You know, until the US agrees to binding targets, Mr. Sterns reservations really aren’t worth a hill of beans. We’re not wearing a white hat here and we don’t get to play the sheriff. Black Bart? Certainly. Sheriff? No so much.

    So pardon me US, but your skepticism seems a little self-serving.

  3. Chella Rajan says:

    Does Stern really believe China isn’t calling his bluff on this? It could turn out to be quite embarrassing in a couple of days if both India and China propose a binding agreement and the US remains the only large emitter without an excuse for inaction.

  4. Xiao-zi says:

    Who cares what Todd Stern has to say?

    This is the person who called Kyoto 2 Dead on Arrival before Bonn negotiations following COP15 and has been doing everything in his power since to sabotage progress in climate negotiations while shifting the blame to others.

    No credibility whatsoever.

  5. James Gonsman says:

    The loss of sea ice volume (8 percent since 2010) is a frightful number.