Climate’s new Stern

by | Jan 26, 2009

Nick Stern isn’t going to like this, but there’s a new Stern on the climate block: Todd Stern , who is set to be announced as the US’s new climate envoy.

(Todd) Stern has set out a fairly clear road map for US engagement in the climate process (nb. these are his personal pre-appointment views, not those of Obama or Clinton). He thinks the US should:

  • Start with domestic policy – get the National Academcy of Sciences to recommend (and review on regular basis) a stablization target; legislate cap and trade, not a carbon tax; supplement with regulation on energy efficiency and tex incentives for R&D.
  • Use domestic policy as a lever in the international arena – negotiating first with a core group of countries (the ‘E8’ – Brazil, China, EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Africa and the US); then building a post-Kyoto framework on the back of their agreement, with binding long-term targets for all developed and ‘as many advanced developing countries as possible,’ and a built-in mechanism to ratchet those targets up over time (and as scientific findings dictate).

Stern is fairly tough on China. The country needs to accept targets (calculated on what basis is a question he does not address), but he makes lots of positive noises. Joint action on a climate can form the basis of a new strategic partnership between the 800-pound gorillas, but only if it is elevated from “traditional place in the second tier of mutual concerns.”

Throughout, of course, he has an eye on the US Senate and ratification. Bottom up targets and sectoral agreements should be deployed if they can suck more countries into a climate deal, as this will shut up antsy Senators. Access to carbon markets should be used as another tool that creates an incentive for developing country participation.

But there needs to be a stick too, Stern believes – and that stick is trade. Unilateral tarrifs on carbon-intensive goods would be ‘profoundly alienating’ and ‘a prescription for mutual recrimination, not progress’, especially after the US has spent so many years in the climate wilderness. But:

Considered in a mutilateral context…the idea…is more interesting. Today, the carbon content of goods is not captured in their price…If the premise of a climate regime were that countries must capture those social costs by putting a price on carbon, whether by means of a cap-and-trade program, a carbon tax, or equivalent policies to cut emissions, tarrifs could then be imposed on the exported products of any country that lacked such policies.

The Europeans will welcome Stern’s appointment with open arms – the Brits in particular.  John Ashton, the UK’s climate envoy, gets name checked by his new US counterpart – and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the two working hand in hand…


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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