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Sunday, February 25, 2024

U.S. has robust climate agenda, but can do more – Pershing

United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, at a media session during the two-week UN climate change talks (COP22) that ended on Friday in Marrakech, Morocco, sheds some light on progress the U.S. made so far at the COP, as well as efforts to address challenges posed by climate change

United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, Dr. Jonathan Pershing
United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, Dr. Jonathan Pershing

Dr. Jonathan Pershing: Thanks to all of you, too, for joining us today. We’ve had quite a successful week here at COP22 since I last talked with you, both inside and outside of the negotiating rooms, and it has helped demonstrate how Paris has set us on an irreversible trajectory toward low-emissions, resilient, climate-resilient growth.

Secretary Kerry joined us here yesterday, when he hosted, first, a meeting of the ministers of the major economies, a forum on energy and climate, where he discussed implementation of the Paris Agreement, and how the group of major economies, which represents more than 70% of global emissions, can continue to lead on climate action. The discussion was very positive. We heard, across the board, the high priority that the major economies put on climate action at home, and that they are moving ahead with the implementation of their Paris pledges.

As you know, Secretary Kerry also made a speech here at the COP highlighting the growing impacts of climate change, and the significant momentum we are seeing in every corner of the world, from governments, civil society, investors, business, and entrepreneurs. He emphasised that we are confident this movement will continue, not only because the impacts are more and more damaging, and clearer and clearer, but because the clean energy transition presents opportunities for economic growth, for job creation, and for sustaining healthier and more prosperous communities.

The United States released yesterday a mid-century report on long-term low-emission strategies. We unveiled it in tandem with Mexico, and with Canada. I hope you have a chance to review the report. It was a product of months of research and consideration. As outlined by a senior adviser to the President, Brian Deese, the mid-century document doesn’t represent a new target, or a particular set of policy prescriptions, but rather it’s an analytical exercise to explore the various ways in which the United States might decarbonise, might broadly decarbonise major sectors of our economy by 2050, and beyond. At this point in the formal meetings, parties have completed nearly all of the technical work planned for Marrakech. We’re quite pleased with the progress we’ve made so far. Among other things, we were able to adopt a robust work plan that will enable us to flesh out the transparency framework that forms the bedrock of the Paris Agreement. Countries announced more than $60 million for an initiative on capacity building for transparency, so-called CBIT, or C-B-I-T, assuring that all countries can implement their obligations to report. We’ve been working on a Marrakech Proclamation to reaffirm our collective global climate commitment, and re-emphasise the need for urgent action. There have also been a series of important ministerial conversations, on issues ranging from finance, where we discussed ways to leverage private investment, as well as transitioning to a clean and low-carbon economy, and address issues related to minimising climate risks.

The remaining discussions are largely procedural, and are expected to focus on reaching a common understanding about how best to accelerate our collective work to implement the Paris Agreement. But we’ve also had a series of truly impressive activities taking place in and around the COP to mobilise business, the finance sector, sub-national governments, and other climate leaders.

For example, this year, Finland and The Netherlands joined the Mission Innovation countries, 20 nations already committed to doubling public clean energy research and development by 2021, an initiative launched by the United States last year in Paris. Nearly three dozen governments, companies, and civil society organisations came together around the Marrakech Declaration for Sustainable Development of the Oil Palm Sector in Africa to help transition that community to a sustainable driver of low-carbon development.

RE100, a coalition of major companies, committed to using 100% renewable electricity for all of their operations has already attracted over 83 companies, ranging from Philips Lighting, to Microsoft, to India’s Dalmia cement company. These are just a few examples, but the overall trajectory is undeniable.

And of course, action outside the process entirely by companies is increasing. As an example, Wal-Mart made an announcement at the beginning of the month on a range of sustainability goals that will impact its whole supply chain. 50% renewable energy, zero net deforestation in key commodities, these are major and significant statements. Companies are taking the risks related to climate change more seriously. Those that do so are more than likely to out-perform their competitors. For example, companies in the Climate Leadership Index out-performed The Bloomberg World Index by over 9%. Those companies acting on these principles are doing better than those that are not.

Investors are increasingly interested in green bonds. Despite being in the early stage of development, the green bond market has been growing by leaps and bounds. Annual green bond issuances in 2015 were 17 times higher than just three years ago, with over $40 billion issued this year alone. In addition, investors are increasingly disclosing whether their strategies are consistent with Paris, and long-term investment in low-carbon projects are beginning to promote global financial stability, as the Financial Stability Board, for example, works to generate recommendations for the G20 countries on how to improve disclosure of climate-related risk in financial markets.

So this COP is about much more than negotiations. It’s an important signpost on the pathway to a low-emission, climate-resilient economy, and the world is accelerating on that pathway.

Thank you and I’m happy to take questions.

Question: Hi, my name is Ashley Braun. I work with the publication, DeSmog in the US, and, considering native Alaskans and other Native Americans are so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel infrastructure projects, such as the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota, if, and how, has the US delegation consulted with the Native American tribes to engage them and their concerns over climate change impacts, adaptation, and other priorities in the COP negotiations? Thank you.

Question: Hi, Jonathan, Dean Scott, Bloomberg BNA. My question goes to loss and damage. I’m wondering, since you’ll be sort of freed from this process in the not-too-distant future, if you could kind of lay out where you see that process going in terms of providing some of the funding and financial mechanisms for loss and damage, consistent with what was decided in Paris in terms of staying away from liability and compensation?

Question: Thanks very much. Alister Doyle, from Reuters. I seem to remember that several years ago; you gave a speech where you mentioned that the only developed countries that had not ratified the Kyoto Protocol were San Marino and the United States. How is it this time around if Donald Trump carries out his threat to pull out, that the United States will be in a group with Nicaragua, which was the only country last year to stand outside the Paris Agreement? What does that show? Thank you.


Dr. Jonathan Pershing: So thanks very much for these questions. With regard to the native communities, we have sought to have quite a wide range of briefings, both in the US delegation and prior to arrival here in Washington. We didn’t have a separate discussion just with the Native American communities, we’ve had discussions with civil society quite broadly, divided up into multiple kinds of groups, environmental organisations, faith-based organisations, cities, state and locality organisations, to which they’ve been invited, and a number have, in fact, come to some of those discussions. In our view, an inclusive process is going to be quite important, not just for the United States, but for all nations. As we look to implement the agenda, it’s only going to take hold, to take root, if there’s a sense that it matters at the community level as well as in civil society, so for us that sense of transparency is really quite essential.

With regard to the question on loss and damage, at the moment the conversation here has been about a review of the process, and we are very close, in fact we are just about reaching agreement on the form of that. There will be – final discussions are underway. We anticipate that this first review will, in fact, be completed here at the meeting. That was the call a couple of years ago in the formal decisions, prior – it was actually done in Lima – so prior to this, the Warsaw Implementation mechanism discussion, that looks like it’s on track.

But the larger question you’re asking is really one about what kind of financing might be required for considering the loss and damage questions. I think countries around the world are, in fact, grappling with that. There are real damages associated with climate change. We recognise those. The community, as a whole, recognises those. One thing that Secretary Kerry talked about from his trip to Antarctica is the potential for substantial sea level rise, a level of increase that could vastly overwhelm shore defenses, particularly in low-lying island states. This kind of conversation is going to get bigger from here. It’s going to be a bigger issue. We’re going to have to deal with it more specifically, and this is the beginning of a longer-term discussion. That’s the purpose of the review and the next step in the conversation.

With regard to the Reuters question on the Kyoto Protocol, I would note that I would not be too hasty here. We don’t know what the outcome’s going to be. The administration doesn’t exist yet, it hasn’t made its decisions about what it intends to do. I don’t think it’s our purpose here to speculate on the outcome. But at the same time, I would say that we recognise here, and the affirmation in the Marrakech Proclamation made clear the collective vision that this is a priority for nations around the world. We don’t believe that the United States would have it in its interest not to be party to this. We believe it’s deeply in our interest. We believe there are opportunities here to be seized. We believe there is a responsibility to be taken and we look forward to engaging – and I, as a citizen, look forward to engaging after I complete my term with the administration.

QuestionAmy Harder with the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for doing this briefing. Two quick questions: First, what kind of concrete deliverables do you anticipate the conference is going to be able to announce at the conclusion, and second, have you had any – you, and or your staff – any contact yet with the Trump transition team? Thank you.

Question: Marlowe Hood with Agence France Presse. How important is the mid-century strategy and what do we need and expect to hear from China and India, which I know are also making similar efforts?

Question: Hi, Ed King from Climate Home. You were involved in the first ever climate summit. I think it was in Chantilly, just outside Washington, D.C. Can you just give us a sense of how the rhetoric, ambition has changed in those past 26 years, or so? Where will the process be when you leave it compared to when you joined it?


Dr. Jonathan Pershing: Thanks very much for those questions. With regard to concrete deliverables, they will take several forms. In one domain, there are a series of decisions around procedural activities, for example, we’ve begun the exercise to develop guidelines for national reporting and for transparency. The timetable for those will be set out in some detail and the call for countries to make submissions and what key issues will be the focus of those. How do you think about reporting frequency? What are the areas of input to make sure that the transparency is sufficient to identify progress against meeting nationally-determined contributions? What kinds of programmatic information do you need to understand emissions trajectories going forward as well as retrospectively? That kind of detail will be contained in decisions, but we’ve got another year or so of work to do, so this is a phased process.

There will be decisions of a second sort. Those are ones that are more in the form of political declarations. The Marrakech Proclamation is one such. It will talk of the ministerial commitment, the re-affirmation of Paris, and the commitment to move forward with a degree of urgency on next steps. But that will be supplemented by a series of outcomes that are not as specific, but perhaps as important. Those are the conclusions reached in the variety of individual focused sessions. Things, for example, about finance, about leveraging private investment, questions about transitions and how you think about diversifying economies, including those that are particularly reliant on fossil fuels, the Saudi Arabias, the OPEC nations, but those also in coal, or in natural gas. There will be a series of discussions that will come out, conclusions on what we think of adaptation, and the impacts there. Some discussions on forests – how are those being leveraged by ministers around the world to drive those sectors forward? So that’s the second bucket.

The third – and I would argue even more important still – are the commitments made by individual players and groups, sometimes in the form of governments, sometimes in the form of private sector actors. I mentioned a few. One of the things we’ve got now is a commitment that Brazil worked on for sustainable biofuels. A host of countries stood up. One I just came from, just about a half an hour ago, run by the French and others, the two co-champions of our process, France and Morocco, looking at mid-century strategies and the platform to work jointly to further develop such strategies. So a whole host of these in the public domain, and then in the private domain. Announcements from companies seeking to move on renewables, from companies seeking to move on electric vehicles, on programmes for efficiency, on buildings. These are coming out, and are being made at this session, and reflect a level of global political will for action. All of that will be the framework for the successes here.

With regard to the mid-century strategies, these are really quite significant. In our thinking, and the reason that we released ours yesterday at this meeting, was to try to begin this next dialogue on how you think about this – not only in the context of 2025, or 2030, but in the long run. We know we need to do better. The numbers that we have set for ourselves, the Paris Agreement, calls for striving for 2 degrees, and the effort to 1.5 is part of the deal. How do you do that?

We know it is going to be an iterative exercise. So you have to work from both sides. One,  you start with your nationally determined contributions. You see what the implementation looks like. You think about how you can go beyond those moving forward, and two, you look out as to where you would like to be. We would like to be – at a 2050 horizon of the United States – at least at an 80% reduction in emissions. What does that mean? What are the kinds of trajectories you might look at? How do you think about the energy sector, or the land use sector, or industrial activities, or transportation? What kinds of reduction opportunities are there? Those questions will, in turn, inform the research agenda. They’ll inform the thinking about policy, and we’d like to exchange views with others as to how to do that effectively. It won’t be an answer that will hold permanently. It’ll be an answer to guide thinking and give you a robust option moving forward.

India and China have both indicated their intent to work on similar kinds of strategies. I anticipate that this next year we’ll see a variety of other countries stepping forward as well. In the side event that was run just now by France and Morocco, we had about 25 countries standing up and indicating their intent to proceed.

With regard to the issue of Chantilly and where we are now since 1990, when we began, it was a very different meeting. It was a tiny session. It was held just outside of Washington, D.C. A republican president actually offered to host that session. George Bush – the first George Bush – put down on his calendar and came to the United Nations General Assembly in 1990, and we hosted the first meeting in February, 1991. That was the beginning of the negotiations for the Framework Convention on Climate Change. A convention that was passed and signed by a republican administration, and the Congress of the time. We’ve been in it for that duration, and it’s made significant progress. But since then, there’s been a recognition about the increasing severity and urgency of the problem, and we’ve moved forward from a small meeting of only about 1,000 people to a meeting in which we have heads of state from virtually every nation in the world coming to a discussion and addressing their intent to proceed in the solution space, to think both about the management of mitigation and the minimisation of the impacts. This is no longer a problem that may be 20 or 30 years out. This is a problem that people are recognising today, and that’s the big change. We have a degree of urgency, a sense of importance of action that didn’t exist then, that now underpins the action that we see at this session, and we expect to see going forward.

QuestionThank you. Challenge Magazine. Please, there is no translation, excuse my English. The United States chooses 2005 as a reference year to reduce their emissions. That year saw an emissions peak of 5.8 billion tons equivalent CO2. Is it to make believe a more significant commitment that the country chooses this year when it emitted a lot of greenhouse gas.

Question: Jean Chemnick: And I’m Jean Chemnick from E&E News, and I was wondering – I know you don’t want to speculate on what the next administration does – but if the US is no longer party to the agreement and China remains in the agreement, is there a competitive advantage that China gains that might spill over into other negotiating fora, other issues besides climate change? What are your thoughts?

Question: Thank you very much for a very enlightening presentation. Elisabeth Holland from the University of the South Pacific, the home of those low-lying islands. We’re a regional university representing 12 Pacific Island nations and I wonder what the US commitment is to helping those low-lying nations in light of Secretary of State Kerry’s comments on low-lying, on sea-level rise and those low-lying nations?


Dr. Jonathan Pershing: Thank you very much for those questions. With regard to the first one, actually, your English is excellent. I wish I spoke another language as well as you do English. I think that there are a couple of different points to make. The first is that we took a number before our administration, but recent enough in the previous history that we had good data, and we are holding ourselves accountable to that timeline and emission reductions we could take since that time. We’ve been reasonably successful. We’ve seen a significant decline in US emissions already since 2005, and we believe that we are on a good trajectory to meet our targets both in 2020 and we think also in 2025.

One of the comments that I made from the podium earlier today in my speech to the entire plenary session was that we believe that we are on track to meet those commitments, and I believe that completely. I think the policies and the programs we’ve put into place which are supplemented by, frankly, market conditions that lead to re-invigorated investments in renewables, efficiency, as well as natural gas, have fundamentally altered the United States’ trajectory and in that sense, no new policies, probably, are still needed to keep us on that pathway for some time, so I think we’re in a good place. 2005; however, was given as a framework for our administration to hold ourselves in some reasonable timeline.

Jean, with regard to your question on China, I think it remains to be seen what happens in a new administration, so I don’t want to go there, but at the same time I think we can see an enormous opportunity and market potential going forward. And that doesn’t apply to China and the United States separately. It applies to everyone.

I had an interesting discussion with the Israelis. They have some of the best technology in the world for desalination and for irrigation technologies to manage drought. I had a very interesting discussion with Morocco. They’ve got the world’s largest concentrating solar facility and it’s only been in place for a couple of years. I had an interesting discussion with my colleagues from the United Arab Emirates, who recently had an auction to look at what they could buy renewable energy for, and they now have the world’s lowest price two point four cents  per kWh. They actually had the previous lowest price as well, only a couple of months ago, it was two point nine cents. It’s coming down precipitously, and this is something which the entire world benefits from. I can’t imagine a scenario in which US companies are not in that game, not playing in the context of the global marketplace which has huge upside growth opportunity, and I think our companies will succeed in that new marketplace.

With regard to the question on the island states, where the United States is on this, there are a number of different components to the response.

The first one is that we have committed our term to try to minimise the problem. We’ve sought to take actions in the immediate term and looking out forward,-  that was our mid-century strategy –  to address how we can radically reduce emissions, how we can bring them down in the near-term, 26-28%, how we can bring them down in the medium- and longer-term, we’re looking at an 80% reduction in 2050, that was the MCS – the mid-century strategy work – so that’s one piece.

We’ve worked under the context of the Paris Agreement to bring all countries on board. The United States is currently responsible for much less than 20% of global emissions. We’re the second-largest, but nonetheless, by ourselves, we cannot solve the problem, so we chose a pathway of engagement as a global matter, to have all countries participate, and I think you can see from this meeting that we, with our colleagues around the world, succeeded. We’re in a fundamentally different place after our term than we were coming in. A place where, prior to this, a handful of players were acting, eight years later, we’ll have a proclamation that all countries re-affirm the importance and of their own domestic actions as well.

And then we’ve worked on adaptation questions. We’ve looked at how you can begin to minimise the risks and the damages. We’ve talked about policies that can manage the impact of sea level, what can you do to move communities inland, or move them up in elevation, how can you build programs which you can have first responses, because, frankly, one of the near-term effects will not be the sea level, it’ll be from those intermittent storms that are exacerbated by sea level, so early-warning systems that can manage the risk of damages.

We’ve also been looking at drought and drought-tolerant crops. We’ve been looking at the consequences of managing forest fires. We’ve been looking at how you deal with heat tolerance in places the world. We’ve looked at desalination technologies, and moving those to places that are exposed. So, we have a very robust agenda, led by a number of agencies in the United States government to move this.

And, finally, I note that we have to do more. None of us are proposing that we have done enough to rest on our laurels and to stop here. As Secretary Kerry made clear yesterday, we’re at the first stages of our big solution push. All of us have to act, because the damages are looming and avoiding them is going to be a key priority.

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