A Conversation with Sue Biniaz: The US's renewed climate diplomacy

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13 May 2022

In the latest episode of the Climate Bridge Podcast, Sue Biniaz – Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change – provides an insider’s look into the United States’ renewed climate diplomacy.

Mary Hellmich, Analyst at adelphi and co-lead of the TCB program office, and Lars Feyen, assistant editor at TCB-partner Polis180, talked with Biniaz and covered topics ranging from her path towards becoming one of the US’s top international climate negotiators to the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the climate crisis. This piece provides an expose on the SPEC team and Biniaz’s role in it, sharing how Biniaz got to where she is today, how her team interacts with domestic climate policy efforts and how the US approaches international climate negotiations under the Biden administration.

Sue Biniaz’s path to the SPEC team

Biniaz has over 25 years of experience as the lead climate lawyer for the State Department, where she played a role in all major international climate negotiations, including the Paris Agreement. She began this journey by jumping directly into the deep end: her first project in the field was helping to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Today, the IPCC is the United Nations’ body for assessing the science of climate change, and in 2007 it was awarded, alongside Al Gore, the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on building awareness of and contributing towards measures to combat climate change.)

Biniaz did not expect that she would be spending the next two decades working on the then-fringe topic of climate change. As one international agreement led to the next, Biniaz’s career saw a full 180-degree handling of the climate crisis. The most significance difference, she remarked, is the increased attention and importance assigned to climate change. Along with this elevated status has come a greater spotlight for issues that are critical to combatting the climate crisis but that took a backseat in previous years, such as adaptation and climate finance.

Working on climate change in the US: a difficult pendulum

Though its journey from obscure topic to regular front-page news has made climate change a topic that today demands to be taken seriously, working in this field for so many years has been challenging. When asked how she was able to stay sane dedicating the last 25 years of her life to the climate crisis, Biniaz responded that she coped by, simply, not working only on climate change. Otherwise, she said, “I’m not sure I could have.” Representing the US, a country whose stance on climate change flip flops depending on the administration in power, adds another layer of complexity and challenge to this work. Biniaz, for example, both negotiated the Kyoto Protocol and then worked to oppose it, all in her same role as a lawyer for the US government.

Describing the US domestic and international climate stance in the four years before Biden as a mere flip-flop, however, is an understatement. Trump infamously formally withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. Little known is that a formal withdrawal only takes effect four years after the fact, a safeguard built into the agreement to help it withstand political shifts, meaning the US only officially left the day after the 2020 election. During this time, reportedly, reluctant US negotiators and diplomats would attend the Conference of the Parties (COP, the annual UN climate change conference) meetings and were instructed to obstruct and water-down ambitious language. These international stunts, though, were dwarfed by a national dismantling of climate policy, with the over 100 environmental rollbacks the Trump administration set in motion.

Renewed climate ambition under the Biden Administration

Today US climate action is back in full swing. President Biden entered the White House with climate change as one of his top priorities, immediately rejoining the Paris Agreement upon entering office and not long thereafter establishing the first-ever Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (SPEC), a position held by John Kerry. As Deputy SPEC, Biniaz broke down the Biden Administration’s climate objectives into three categories: (1) getting the US back on track after the Trump Administration; (2) exercising climate leadership internationally; and (3) raising global climate ambition.

President Biden and the SPEC team have accomplished a lot in their pursuit of these objectives. Rejoining the Paris Agreement brought with it a strengthening of the US’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), in which the Biden Administration established a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 (NDCs are the domestic climate action plans each country that is a Party to the Paris Agreement must create, in which they outline their plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts). The US also hosted a Major Economies Forum at the leader level, a Leaders Summit on Climate, and several bilateral meetings with other countries to reaffirm both sides’ commitment to the climate crisis.

How the SPEC team works

Inside the United States

During the Obama Administration, Todd Stern acted as Special Envoy for Climate Change. So what distinguishes this role from the first Special Presidential Envoy? With this title, John Kerry has the rank of a Cabinet Official and forms part of the National Security Council, making him the first-ever member of the Council to focus exclusively on climate. Here Biden has sent a clear message – climate change is a matter of national security.

Beyond this elevated rank, “now it’s a larger operation,” Biniaz said in regard to the difference between climate policy under the Biden Administration compared to the Obama years. The SPEC team works within the State Department and the many bureaus within it, such as the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (which now has a climate change office), the Bureau of Energy Resources, and various regional bureaus depending on the countries the team is engaging with. The team also works with the White House and its newly-created Office of Domestic Climate Policy, headed by Gina McCarthy, to ensure that their international commitments can be backed up nationally, as well as various other agencies across the US government, such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy, and others.

Within the SPEC team, Biniaz’s role is that of negotiations in all their forms, ranging from COPs to bilateral joint statements with other countries. She also focuses on cross-cutting issues: what she calls climate + X. “Paris can’t do it alone – other fora need to chip in,” Biniaz said, citing bodies such as the G7, G20, the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization that are needed in order holistically address the climate crisis and the many areas it intersects.

Around the world

The SPEC team’s work primarily takes place in the international arena. Among its notable achievements at COP26 in Glasgow include launching the First Movers Coalition – an initiative that brings together companies from around the world to make purchasing commitments for innovative technologies in hard-to-abate sectors – and the Global Methane Pledge – a commitment to reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that lives in the atmosphere for less time than CO2 but is much more potent, by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

Biniaz walked us through the establishment of the Global Methane Pledge, which began with consensus on the SPEC team that methane wasn’t getting enough emphasis in international climate policy compared to CO2, when methane was perhaps even more urgent to address. In addition to identifying this gap, the team was also looking for an impactful and multilateral deliverable to come out of the forthcoming Major Economies Forum that it could then take to COP26 in Glasgow. A global pledge on methane was such an opportunity. The SPEC team started the process of establishing the pledge at the Major Economies Forum, where it got a critical mass of country buy-in that the team built upon on the road to COP26. The Global Methane Pledge now has 112 signatory countries.

When asked if the process of implementing the Global Methane Pledge could serve as a blueprint for how the SPEC team approaches international climate negotiations in general, Biniaz said “there is no blueprint.” How to approach negotiations depends on a number of components unique to each situation, such as whether the issue in question is new (such as methane) or old; how controversial the issue is; whether the negotiation is bilateral, in the context of a COP (where you need consensus among almost all countries in the world) or for a forum consisting of a smaller subset of countries; and the makeup of the forum (the G7, for example, is a small group of like-minded developed countries that would need to be approached differently from the G20, which has a greater variety of development statuses and policy priorities among its members).

Though there is no blueprint for the SPEC team’s work, there are some principles that apply to all international climate negotiations. You can do things quickly, Biniaz said, when the agreement is non-binding, an advantage she appreciates even with her background as a lawyer. Establishing a global target also makes it easier to get country buy-in, as countries are more likely to commit to an agreement when the first step doesn’t involve agreeing to concrete (and costly) domestic measures. Starting global and then bringing in specific country-level actions later was part of the Global Methane Pledge’s success.

COP27: The year of implementation+

Looking ahead to COP27 in Egypt, Biniaz said that this year’s conference is an usual one. Each COP usually presents a specific and major topic that remains to be negotiated. COP26, for example, finalized negotiations on the much-anticipated and hotly-debated Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the article establishing how countries can achieve their NDCs using international carbon market mechanisms. COP27, in contrast, has no big topic to be negotiated on the agenda, and as the Paris Agreement structure establishes climate targets through each individual country’s NDC, there is no negotiation of the next set of targets at the COP level.

When asked how to make COP27 significant in spite of its atypical nature, Biniaz responded: implementation+. First is looking at the initiatives that came from COP26 and working on their implementation. This is good for both continuity and accountability, Biniaz said, and it can hopefully avoid the familiar tendency that host countries of the upcoming COP have to forget about the previous year’s conference and focus only on their goals for the current year.

Now for the “+”. Beyond fulfilling objectives from COP26, countries must also work towards creating new initiatives that will come from this year’s COP. In addition to the priorities that Egypt will put forth as host, the SPEC team would like to see action on green shipping and other ocean-related deliverables.

Though the COP27 agenda and broader international climate policy prospects (especially mired in uncertainty after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its resulting energy crisis and subsequent hostile relations with one of the world's major powers and emitters of greenhouse gases) are, at the moment, rather unclear, one thing is certain - the SPEC team is here to put the US center stage of international climate diplomacy. 

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Mary Hellmich

Mary Hellmich

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Co-lead of the Transatlantic Climate Bridge team at adelphi