When it comes to the global fight against climate change, the United States has long been the decisive factor.
Known for signing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol under one president but refusing to ratify it into law under the next, America - then the world's top carbon dioxide emitter - weakened the first treaty among industrialised and transitioning countries to cut emissions and hold off a rise in the Earth's temperature.
Fourteen years on, with Kyoto close to expiry, the tables turned when the US, along with China and India, came on board with nearly 200 other nations to promise to work toward a replacement agreement. The Durban Platform, named for the South African city where it was negotiated, calls on nations to craft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in the next three years to come into effect in 2020.
The US climate envoy Todd Stern spoke to The National on the sidelines of the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Where do we stand in the negotiations?
With respect to Durban, I think we have a challenge and an opportunity. This is an agreement that's intended essentially to cover the period of the 2020s, and I think we need to work on something that's got an adequate amount of ambition - which is to say, this is going to do something meaningful and that is inclusive, that's supposed to be applicable to all parties, which is hugely important. So I'm hopeful that we will be able to do important things but like climate agreements always are, it's going to be challenging.
One sentiment that I'm hearing is that maybe multilateralism is too slow. Should nations actually just be following their own path?
No, I think that we ought to be working in multiple different ways at the same time. I think that the international negotiations are important. This is a quintessentially global problem. If some countries are acting in an aggressive way and other countries are not acting, it's not going to do the trick. Emissions that happen everywhere in the world affect everybody the same way, so it's important that everybody gets engaged, and I think there's an important, central role for multilateral negotiations. Having said that, we're engaged in efforts in ways outside of the negotiations with smaller groups of countries that are designed to produce concrete actions.
Assuming that the Durban Platform results in individual country targets, will the US be able to meet those without going down the road of the EU or Australia and starting a carbon market?
You mean without going down the road of cap-and-trade? Sure, there's all sorts of ways to go about these things. I think cap-and-trade is a perfectly good policy. We proposed it. But I think there's a lot of different ways to go about this. The US in the past few years has pursued very far-reaching standards for the whole transport sector, basically doubling the fuel efficiency between now and the early 2020s. The transport sector is about a third of our emissions. We've got significant regulations that we've put in place with respect to new power plants, and new regulations are going to be coming into place relatively soon with respect to existing power plants. There's a whole set of requirements with respect to energy efficiency, with respect to everything that goes on in buildings, which represents another third of our emissions. So there's all sorts of ways to do this.