The United States is considering a proposal to combat climate change that would require countries to offer plans for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions on a certain schedule but would leave it to individual nations to determine how deep their cuts would be, said Todd Stern, the nation's chief climate negotiator.
Speaking at Yale University on Tuesday, Stern gave the clearest indication so far of what the U.S. position will be regarding a road map toward an international agreement on greenhouse gas reductions. His comments suggested that the U.S. would back the plan, first put forth by New Zealand, when international negotiators meet in Lima, Peru, in December to try to establish parameters for an eventual agreement. Negotiators are aiming to sign that deal next year in Paris.
"If we were to conclude a new climate agreement in Paris along the lines of what I just outlined, would we have accomplished much? I think the answer is unequivocally yes," Stern said. "We would have for the first time established a stable, durable, rules-based agreement with legal force that is more ambitious than ever before, even if not yet ambitious enough -- an agreement that is applicable to all in a genuine and not just a formalistic manner."
Despite more than 20 years of international discussions about addressing climate change, the world's emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are higher than ever. Scientists warn that the window is closing on measures that nations could take to slow the rise in average global temperatures and avert the worst effects of global warming.
International agreements to cut emissions have historically snagged on the idea that developed countries such as the United States should do more to cut emissions than emerging nations, because developed states were the ones that pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for a century as they built their economies. But the biggest emitter is now China and India is No. 3, with the U.S. sandwiched between.
The New Zealand plan would take into account that not all countries could cut emissions by the same levels, but would mandate that all countries make some cuts. There would be a "legally binding obligation to submit a schedule and various legally binding provisions for accounting, reporting, review and periodic updates," Stern said, so that other countries, scientists, environmentalists and the broader public could keep track of a nation's progress.
The idea has already run into resistance, Stern acknowledged, but he argued that it would be the most viable way forward. If the international community insists that countries agree to be legally bound to cuts, many major emitters would balk, including the United States, where a gridlocked Congress has been unable to act on climate change. Further, countries would "lowball" the cuts they would make for fear of being unable to meet higher, binding goals, Stern said.