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Lead U.S. negotiator at Paris summit on what's next for 2021 climate talks


World leaders spent the last few days in Glasgow making big announcements about climate change - promises on methane emissions, preserving the world's oceans and assistance for developing countries dealing with the consequences of global warming. Now, many heads of state have left Scotland, and in some ways, the difficult part of the U.N. Climate Summit begins. Negotiators have until the end of next week to hammer out an agreement that will build on the goals of the 2015 summit in Paris. Todd Stern was the head U.S. negotiator in Paris, and he's here to help us understand how the next 10 days could unfold. Good to talk to you again.

TODD STERN: Good to talk to you, Ari. Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Everybody's referring to these negotiations in Glasgow. Help us understand what that actually looks like. What's happening in these meeting rooms?

STERN: Well, you know, it's funny. At some level, the thing which I think most people in the climate world regard as the most important is not actually what's going to be getting discussed very much among the negotiators, which is the degree to which countries step up the targets that they took back in Paris for 2030, ramp those up in a way that is consistent with what science is now telling us.

There will certainly be negotiations in the meeting rooms over the kind of language that the final decision from this COP will include with respect to what countries need to do to ramp up. And the fact that China and some number of others have not doesn't change the fact it will only increase the desire to have strong language saying, we're not going to wait 'til 2025. We need you to do it next year. In addition, there are other issues that were part of Paris that weren't completed. They include things like the use of emissions trading. There are some other sort of smaller issues that are still on the table. There will be a discussion that's not a small one about finance.

SHAPIRO: How much do wealthy countries pay less-wealthy countries to help them cope?

STERN: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Well, you were negotiating the Paris accord in 2015. I was there covering the summit. And you and I spoke after nearly 200 countries agreed on an ambitious deal. And this is a bit of our conversation from six years ago.


SHAPIRO: In terms of accountability, if India or China or Russia or any other country fails to live up to the promise that it has made to cut emissions, is there any real consequence?

STERN: This is not built on punitive consequences, and you never could have negotiated an agreement with 195 parties that was built on punitive consequences. But the transparency system that we agreed to, I think, is really very important.

SHAPIRO: So Todd Stern, here we are in 2021. And indeed, countries have not lived up to their commitments. And one reason we know that is because of the transparency provisions that you talked about. Where does that leave the world?

STERN: Well, you know, I think it just was not a negotiable thing to say, oh, wow, we should have had, you know, binding targets with penalties if you didn't - and not only that, we should have figured out how much the whole world needed to reduce emissions and then given assignments to each country based on some formula. And then it would be perfect, and then we'd be on our way. That's the kind of thing that's great on paper, and it's completely, totally unnegotiable. So that wasn't possible.

But the other thing that is really fundamentally important - it is part of what Paris is all about - is that norms and expectations need to change. I think they are changing.

SHAPIRO: The question is whether they're changing fast enough. And...

STERN: And that's always the question right now. Because the problem that we have with climate change at the moment is that directional progress isn't good enough. You know, I think you have to remember that a lot of quite positive steps were taken by a bunch of big players. The three biggest players in the world are the U.S., the EU and China. China's 27% of global emissions. They are bigger in emissions than the entire developed world put together. If you waved a wand and said - you know what? - a thought experiment; China has made a big move - the view of this conference would be radically different.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned the positive change in expectations and public pressure. Are there other things that you have seen change in the six years since the Paris climate summit that surprised you in a positive way?

STERN: Well, yeah. I mean, I don't know about surprised, but pleased me. I mean, I think that if you look at the level of intensity and the level of importance of climate change as a political issue in the 2016 Democratic primary for president versus 2020 - completely different. So you have seen a lot of movement. You've seen an entire youth movement that has been born over the last number of years, which is growing and becoming more powerful. I think you also see businesses all over the world that are taking this seriously. And - but I do think the thing that is missing right now in the world - inadequate supply - is political will. We have the technology, and to the extent that we don't, we have the innovative capacity. We can absolutely afford it. The thing that is missing still is adequate political will - more political will. So that's where we stand.

SHAPIRO: Todd Stern was the Obama administration's chief negotiator at the 2015 U.N. Climate Summit in Paris, and he's now with the Brookings Institution. Thanks a lot.

STERN: Thank you so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.