Will New "Climate Envoy" Bring More of the Same for the US in Copenhagen?

January 26, 2009 |

Todd Stern will be named by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the U.S. State Department's special "Climate Envoy," news outlets reported today. Stern's climate credentials include a stint as a senior negotiator representing Bill Clinton's White House at the Kyoto Protocol talks, a role he'll likely reprise at the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks this December.

As a high level negotiator at Kyoto in 1997, Stern helped forge an international climate reduction framework that has been largely ineffective (see Michael and Ted's essay, "Scrap Kyoto", here [pdf]). Stern's appointment thus makes one wonder: has the Clinton-era negotiator learned the lessons of the past 12 years and is now prepared to offer a new direction at the Copenhagen talks? Or does Stern's appointment signal that the Obama administration's official thinking on international climate policy is still stuck in the winter of 1997?

The biggest product of the Kyoto Protocol has been the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme, or ETS, a cap-and-trade program that has failed to drive either significant reductions in carbon emissions or investments in clean energy technology, thanks to its reliance on dubious offsets, low cost for carbon, and lack of a cohesive investment strategy to drive down the cost of clean energy.

Stern, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, co-authored a report on climate change and energy about a year ago that claims that "the investment dollars [necessary for the transition to a low-carbon ecnonmy] are available if the policy ground rules are properly established," most importantly "mplementing an economy-wide cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases."

This unfortunately seems to indicate that Stern's thoughts on climate action may have been just as unresponsive to the failure of Kyoto as Europe's carbon emissions have been unresponsive to the ETS. Cap-and-trade and other strategies predicated on a high cost for carbon to send price signals to the market have been ineffective in Europe, and these types of programs obscure the real work that needs to be done to reduce the cost of real clean energy alternatives and drive the transition to a clean energy economy. Still, it's been a long ten years, and it's unclear what lessons Mr. Stern has incorporated into his thinking.

Either way, the next eight months will have a significant impact on America's ability and desire to take bold leadership on climate at Copenhagen, including the state of the economy, America's international standing, and Barack Obama's political capital come December. And the Obama Administration's still-unfolding domestic climate strategy will no doubt affect the style and substance of the US's re-engagement with the international climate talks.

So the question remains: when Copenhagen finally arrives, will Mr. Stern be prepared to advocate a fresh start on a new international climate framework that prioritizes investments in technology to drive necessary innovation and a sector by sector bottoms-up approach to tackling key barriers to a clean energy economy? Or will he dust off his old play book and continue to work towards an ineffective and illusory "hard" cap on emissions and a global emissions trading scheme? Stay tuned...


A somewhat different, and relevant perspective on earth2tech:


Although his insistence on "binding caps" is totally contradictory with a goal of "restless experimentation", the ideas about tech transfer with China and head-of-state-level negotiations are important and productive additions.

Also, hi Adam! Hope you all are doing great.

By Keith Brower Brown on 2009 01 26