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Science & Environment

U.S. Chief Climate Negotiator: 'Paris Wasn't The End, Paris Is The Start'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since the start of the Obama administration, Todd Stern has been the U.S. government's chief climate negotiator. He led the team in Paris that got some 200 countries to agree to the most sweeping deal ever to limit carbon emissions. It aims to hold the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius and says carbon emissions will reach net zero by the second half of this century. Now Todd Stern has stepped down from the job, and he joins us for an interview. Welcome back to the studio.

TODD STERN: Hi, Ari. Happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: Nearly 200 countries agreed to this Paris deal. What does the road ahead look like? What has to be done now?

STERN: Well, look, the most important thing you have to understand is that Paris wasn't the end. Paris was the beginning. Paris is the start. What Paris has done is set up a structure, an architecture for a long-term climate regime, and that's incredibly important. But what has to happen now is the countries have to take the tough steps in terms of domestic policy to green their economies.

SHAPIRO: So much of the good news about renewable energy that I hear coming out of the developing world is a country saying, as a percentage of our total energy portfolio, renewables are increasing dramatically.

But, in fact, that country needs to produce so much more energy in total that the amount of coal they're burning, the amount of other - for lack of a better word - dirty energy they're using is also increasing. And that doesn't limit the amount of carbon in the air and in fact increases the amount of carbon in the air even if the overall percentage of renewables as a part of their portfolio was growing.

STERN: There's a lot of truth in what you say right now, but that's got to shift over time. And it also depends to some extent on which part of the world you're looking at. If you look at developed countries right now, the overall developed country emissions are pretty stable or even started to go down. In countries that are developing rapidly, that need a great deal more energy in order to meet their economic growth and/or to provide access to electricity for people who don't have it, you're right. There are huge pressures, and sometimes those pressures are going to be answered through continued use of fossil fuels. But that has got to - the mix has got to shift, shift, shift and as rapidly as possible.

SHAPIRO: In a couple of weeks, I'm going to travel to India to report on some of these issues, which is a country where 75 percent of the people live on $2 a day or less. Three hundred million people or more - roughly the population of the United States - is not connected to the electrical grid.

How do you tell people in a place like India that because we don't want climate to change, because we don't want carbon to be put into the atmosphere, they may have to continue living in poverty without a car, without a refrigerator, without an air conditioner - the things that Americans all take for granted?

STERN: You can't tell them that. What you have to do, again, is to think about development in a different way. Now, you have huge potential - 300 million people don't have access to electricity. A great many of them are rural. A great many of them could be reached cheaply and effectively through the right kind of use of solar power, for example.

But India has got - there's no country probably with a bigger challenge - looking at the number of people, the level of their economic growth, the number of people who don't have access to electricity - probably nobody's got a bigger challenge than India.

SHAPIRO: You've talked so much about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, the work left to do. So why leave?

STERN: (Laughter) Well - so Ari, look, I never intended to stay as long as I did...

SHAPIRO: Seven years?

STERN: ...When I first came in - seven years, which is, you know, that's a good, long time. I decided when we agreed to a mandate for new negotiation at the end of 2011 at the meeting in Durban that we were going to try to negotiate a new legal agreement that would be lasting and set the structure and architecture of the climate regime for decades ahead. I decided right there. I'm working on that. I'm going to take that one through to the end.

SHAPIRO: You couldn't skip Paris.

STERN: I couldn't skip Paris, and I couldn't skip any of those four years. So - but I always had in my mind if we could get this done, that would be a good time for me to move on and pass the baton to an exceptionally talented and able successor who was my deputy in the first term of this administration, Jonathan Pershing, who will do an extraordinarily good job.

SHAPIRO: Todd Stern has spent the last seven years as the Obama administration's chief climate negotiator, and he stepped down this month. Thanks for joining us.

STERN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.