John Kerry aboard the USS San Antonio, a transport ship at the Norfolk naval base

John Kerry, US secretary of state, has warned that December’s Paris climate change talks will not deliver a “treaty” that legally requires countries to cut their carbon emissions, exposing international divisions over how to enforce a deal.

The EU and other countries have long argued that the accord due to be reached next month should be an “international treaty” with legally binding measures to cut emissions. But in an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Kerry insisted the agreement was “definitively not going to be a treaty”.

He said it would contain measures that would drive a “significant amount of investment” towards a low-carbon global economy. But he stressed there were “not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto”, a reference to the 1997 Kyoto protocol, a UN climate treaty that had targets for cutting emissions that countries ratifying it were legally obliged to meet.

Delegates from 195 countries are due to finalise a new global climate accord in Paris that will replace the Kyoto treaty, which failed to stop emissions rising. The US signed but failed to ratify that treaty, largely because it did not cover China, now the world’s largest carbon polluter.

The Paris deal is supposed to cover all countries, but Mr Kerry’s comments underline the differences between the US and other nations over how to ensure it is robust enough to shift billions of dollars of investment away from fossil fuels and towards greener energy sources.

A European Commission spokeswoman on Wednesday said the commission and many nations “would like the Paris agreement to be in the form of a protocol or a treaty” which would represent “the strongest expression of political will and also for the future it provides predictability and durability”.

Privately, EU officials acknowledge the Obama administration is eager for a deal in Paris, but not one containing new, legally binding measures because these would strengthen arguments that the agreement needs approval from a hostile US Senate, which must ratify all treaties.

To that end, negotiators are trying to craft an agreement that satisfies all sides, possibly by making its rules and procedures legally binding, but not the actual targets in many of the climate pledges that nearly 160 countries have made this year for the deal.

The issue is particularly sensitive ahead of the 2016 presidential election given the chasm between the Democrats and Republicans running for the White House over the need and urgency to tackle climate change.

Some Republicans have accused Mr Obama of pushing the Paris talks in a direction that would make it easier to circumvent Congressional scrutiny, echoing a charge that has been levelled at his administration on issues ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to his approach on illegal immigration.

Mr Kerry said it was too early to tell how the Republican-controlled Congress would respond to a global deal on carbon emissions. While climate change has played a cameo role in some of the Republican presidential debates, the Paris talks have received very little attention in the US media.

“I suppose, depending on what comes out of it, they [Congress] may well try to review it in one form or another,” said Mr Kerry, who faced harsh criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. “We don’t have a problem with [that]. I mean, it’s fine. I mean, it depends on whether it is a poison-pill effort or a genuine effort just to review it.”

Some experts have argued that while Mr Obama is making the case for a deal, there is no guarantee that his successor — assuming it is a Republican climate-change sceptic — would not walk away from a Paris agreement.

Mr Kerry dismissed those concerns by arguing that the Republicans had “eliminated themselves from contention in the general election” because of their approach during the campaign on issues such as climate change.

Mr Kerry said several hurdles remained to securing a deal, including ensuring the US and other developed nations firmly agree to come up with the money they have promised developing countries to help combat climate change.

John Kerry at the Norfolk naval base

The Vietnam war veteran was speaking after a visit to the USS San Antonio, a transport ship at Norfolk naval base on the Atlantic coast where he sought to reinforce the case for tackling climate change. The naval base, which is the biggest in the world, is facing threats from rising sea levels and flooding.

During a speech at nearby Old Dominion University, Mr Kerry said the threat from rising temperatures was not just the “harm that is caused to the habitat for butterflies or polar bears as some people try to mock it” but the threat to everything from agriculture to national security.

“Long story short, climate change is not just about Bambi. It’s about all of us in very personal and important ways,” he told students, military officers and climate scientists.

The task Mr Obama has given Mr Kerry in Paris is a formidable one but in the interview with the FT he argued that other countries should not worry about US politics and the chance that a Republican president could walk away from any deal reached in Paris.

“There’s just a very different electorate in the general election and I think that people will want somebody who understands climate change . . . and wants to do something about it,” the former presidential candidate told the FT.

In his speech he had also pushed back against the argument that tackling climate change was bad for the economy, saying that “four times as many Americans are employed by renewable-energy companies today than are employed by the fossil-fuel industry”.

Mr Kerry acknowledged in the interview that Congress was making it hard for the US to come up with the $3bn that it has pledged ahead of the Paris deal to help developing countries combat global warming. He attributed this to “attitudes about climate change itself” and an “ideological barrier to any kind of federal expenditure that’s dealing with a kind of global issue”.

He said finding the money was a wider challenge as “the politics of moving on climate change in many countries are trumped by paying the pensions and filling up the potholes and doing some other things”. But he said Mr Obama would find a way to get lawmakers to approve the funding.

“We’ll get there, because the trade-offs of the budget are such that when something is a high enough priority for a president, you have a way of getting it done, even though it’s opposed by people,” he said. “If the president is prepared to veto the budget because it hasn’t included it, you can usually find some money.”

Mr Kerry said he thought the overall target of $100bn for the deal would be surpassed but that “whether it’s formalised or not remains to be seen”. He added that he would like the US to provide more than its current pledge of $3bn, but said “I don’t know whether it’s in the cards right now”.

Mr Kerry said another hurdle was resistance from countries that insist they should be compensated more because of their developing nation status.

“We have to break the old mentality . . . This is not 1992, this is not 1997, this is not the same Kyoto kind of breakdown,” said Mr Kerry. “China is an example. It’s now the world’s largest emitter and it’s the second-largest economy in the world . . . Now they’re not sitting there being the same. They’re putting up some money, they’re doing other things. It’s a great example.”

Mr Kerry rejected suggestions that the US recently pulled its punches in the South China Sea to avoid angering China before Paris. Several US officials told the FT recently that the White House forced the US navy to take the least aggressive option on the table when it conducted freedom of navigation operations in the area. Asked whether the US action would make China less co-operative, Mr Kerry said “I hope not and I don’t think so”.

“First of all, we’re not being aggressive in the least. We’re doing what we’ve done for 20 years,” he said. “If anything is aggressive, putting fighter jets on a man-made island in the South China Sea is pretty aggressive, and saying you’re not militarising”.

While he praised China for its role in the talks, he raised concern about other countries, including India, which he suggested was more resistant even as he applauded Narendra Modi, its prime minister.

“India has been more cautious, a little more restrained in its embrace of this new paradigm, and it’s a challenge,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of focus on India right now to try to bring them along. ”

Mr Kerry said India was “regrettably” talking about using its own domestically produced coal — which is dirtier than some imported coals — which he said was “not the direction that we ought to be moving in”.

But conscious of putting too much pressure on countries that believe the US and developed nations should take more responsibility for the current level of greenhouse gases, the top US diplomat said, “we have to be careful not to be holier-than-thou or accusatory”.

Twitter: @DimiSevastopulo

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