Press Briefing: 17th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Jonathan Pershing
Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change 
Durban, South Africa
November 28, 2011

Date: 11/28/2011 Description: Deputy Special Envoy Jonathan Pershing - State Dept Image

DR. PERSHING: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming.

My name is Jonathan Pershing. I’m the Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change at the U.S. Department of State, and the head of the U.S. delegation for the first week of the COP. Todd Stern, the Special Envoy for Climate Change for the U.S., will be the head of the delegation for the ministerial session next week.

Let me say a few words about our expectations for this meeting, and then, I will take some questions.

The United States is very happy to be here in Durban, South Africa, to make progress on addressing this critical issue. We know that it’s a great concern to the continent which is certainly suffering from the impacts of climate change and is expected to see substantial future suffering from the negative impacts that are projected. It also stands, however, to benefit significantly from implementation here in Durban of the agreements that we reached in Cancun.

Our priority at this meeting here will be making fully operational the key elements we agreed in Cancun. If we do this, we will have made a substantial step forward in the global effort to address climate change.

The agreements we reached in Cancun were a major undertaking involving all parties.

It anchored significant mitigation pledges made – for the first time – by all major players, developed and developing, in Copenhagen. It called for the creation of a transparency regime for both developed and developing countries, which will help the global community understand how we are meeting our emissions reduction targets. It calls for the establishment of a Green Climate Fund, a Technology Executive Committee and a Technology Center and Network, and a new Adaptation Committee.

Taken together, these institutions and agreements will guide international climate action for a long time to come, and our key task here is to make them -- all of them -- fully operational.

There has been considerable attention paid over the past several months to two other issues that will also be under discussion here in Durban: (1) what happens between now and 2020, particularly with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, and (2) the form and content of discussions on the future, post-2020 regime.

The United States is not Party to the Kyoto Protocol, so we will not weigh in on the Kyoto debate.

But we should be clear, irrespective of Kyoto’s disposition, the world is acting: Between now and 2020, the United States and all developed countries, as well as all major emerging economies and many others will be implementing the commitments they made under the Cancun agreement. These commitments and actions cover countries representing more than 80 percent of global greenhouse gases, with significant reductions that are beginning to slow the trend of global climate change.

There is also a debate on what might be said about the period after 2020.

Discussions have covered what the nature of such an agreement might be and how and when the process for discussing such a post-2020 agreement should get underway. Neither we – nor any other country – has suggested that the actions we are committed to through 2020 will be sufficient. Additional post-2020 steps will also be needed. Some countries want to stipulate up front that such steps should be in the form of a legally binding agreement; others, including ourselves, have indicated we want to know more about the content of such an agreement before we commit to a particular legal form.

One thing I would underscore about any post-2020 accord is that the only way it could be effective and garner broad support is if it applies fully to all significant players.

Before I close, let me say briefly a few words on finance. The U.S. and other developed country Parties are well on their way to fulfilling the US$30 billion fast start finance goal, and we are working actively on ways to ramp up to the more than US$100 billion through both public funds and more effective leveraging of private capital.

United States fast start finance in Fiscal Year 2011 totaled $3.1 billion, consisting of $1.8 billion of Congressionally appropriated assistance and $1.3 billion from development finance and export credit agencies. To date, the U.S. contribution to Fast Start from these sources totals over the two year period $5.1 billion, including a $2.0 billion contribution in 2010.

We will be releasing our latest Fast Start Finance report during our side event this Thursday at the U.S. Center and I strongly encourage those of you who are able to attend. The U.S. Center is quite an elaborate exercise trying to give you some sense of what kinds of things are going on at home and what kinds of things we are doing internationally on climate change. We’re also releasing individual country fact sheets for each of the 126 countries where we are providing climate change assistance. These documents are a part of a broader U.S. effort to be as transparent as possible with our climate finance reporting.

Another finance issue, and a significant deliverable that Parties would like to see in Durban, is the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, through which a portion of the global finances being mobilized for 2020 and beyond will pass. We want to see the Green Fund move forward as part of a Durban package. However, our substantive concerns about the report produced by the Transitional Committee are real and need to be addressed in order for the U.S. to be able to support this fund. We believe these issues can be fixed, and by doing so, we will improve the workability and attractiveness of the Fund.

Thank you very much, and I will be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask, UNEP has produced a report saying that the pace of climate change could be brought down if we were to reduce meat consumption. World Watch Institute produced a report saying that over half of greenhouse gases come from meat production and yet 65 billion animals are killed every year. So, my question to the United States is, we’ve been subsidizing a lot of this industry, are you considering, as well, to do things to educate the public about bringing down meat consumption as not only a mitigation for climate change but for public health?

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. There are actually any number of sectors that have significant contributions. The collective agriculture sector is one of them. There is work underway, quite actively, we have a number of members of our delegation here from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working explicitly to think about how the international community can move forward on those emissions. We’re part of an alliance that was created by New Zealand and others, explicitly looking at the agricultural sector. They’ve been actively engaged in some of the questions around meat production and ways to reduce emissions from that sub-sector in agriculture. The Department of Agriculture, under Secretary Vilsack, has taken a very active role collectively in these activities. So the answer is yes, we are deeply engaged on the agricultural side. About 30 percent of global emissions come from there, something we’re paying a great deal of attention to it.

QUESTION: Two questions really; one if we could just very briefly outline the U.S. position on this Durban roadmap that the EU is pushing here and second, you said there are quite a few countries who feel the need to know more about the science of climate change before they can take a position on how to deal with it. To be honest, I wasn’t really aware that there were many countries at all. So, I was just wondering if you could clarify if the U.S. is now one of those countries and also which other countries are still demanding more climate science before they can actually take a position?

DR. PERSHING: Let me address the second question first. I didn’t say anything of the sort. The United States administration is convinced of the science. The United States administration believes that the urgency of the problem is real, and we are committed to this process as one of the multiple ways that we have to move together to address it. So, what I said, I think, was narrowly in the context of whether the next step is a legal document or not. In that context, the question of what form it takes seems to us to follow the question of what content is in it.

The first question with regard to the Durban roadmap is an open issue about what comes next in this process and how we think about things moving forward. There are a number of pieces that Parties have recommended, the EU being one of those that has made some recommendations. For many Parties, and I would put the large emerging economies into this mix, and us as well, and frankly from what I can tell Europe as well, we see a list of actions and commitments that countries have committed themselves to that run through the year 2020. Our thinking and that which we've heard explicitly from others, is that there is no intention on the part of Parties to modify the pre-2020 actions that they're taking.

It's in that context then that you come to a post-2020 framework, and the issue there is: do you have to resolve that now, what form does that take, when should you begin those discussions? That will be a great deal of what people focus themselves on here in Durban. Our thinking is that the idea of putting the form of the action before the substance doesn't make a great deal of sense, and there is no framework that we can envisage that would be a successful framework that didn't include all the major economies.

In that context, the major emerging economies represent a much larger and growing share of global emissions than they did a decade ago. We can't be in the same discussions that we were in a decade ago around their engagement. That discussion is part of what has to be at the center of this ongoing conversation.

QUESTION: Given that the Cancun agreements do include all major emitters, would the U.S. ever view the Cancun agreements as a model for post-2020?

DR. PERSHING: There is a great deal in the Cancun agreements that seems to us to be the kind of exercise that we do like. So for example, you noted, and we would fully agree, it does include the major emitters. It takes a series of steps that are built on what they were able to deliver, and we now see, over the course of the last couple of years, actions in all the countries that made commitments to deliver on those commitments. That is a tremendous first start.

Clearly, post-2020, you need to think about what next steps might be done because most Parties have actions that have, in essence, an end date of 2020 and none of the analyses that we've seen suggest that if you were to stop in 2020, you would have fixed the problem. So that model is good in terms of building on what countries can do and the clear indications of implementation. We're not yet clear that the reporting has been sufficient. Part of what's to be done here is to develop a set of guidelines for what we call transparency, but it speaks to a larger constellation of questions. It incorporates reporting. It incorporates a process for consultations between Parties; it incorporates a process for analysis among experts of the actions being taken; and a mechanism for the Parties to discuss with each other what has been done. Those guidelines are one of the things we want to see coming out from this, but they would extend well beyond 2020 also. So those kinds of things, too frame our discussions.

I would also note with respect to finance that we see that framework as one that also continues. The agreement that we struck in Cancun said that by 2020 we would end up seeking to mobilize from public and private sources the $100 billion. So it's not as if it's the year 2020, and then in 2021 it's over. It's an exercise to ramp up and then to continue beyond. Again, a framework from Cancun that to us seems to have a much longer life. So the short answer is yes, and those provide some characteristics of what we think is good about it.

QUESTION: I don't know whether I get a feeling that America is surely the leaders of the world in many ways and if you have all those provisos, it sounds to us like provisos, before you will really commit, surely many other countries will follow you and say: "But if America, if you guys do not take responsibility, then the others won't." So, so, are we not in a position here that we have a very remote chance of moving forward and getting real commitments if America doesn't be the leaders that they're supposed to be and say you know, let's…let's do it. I'm not sure. I'm confused.

DR. PERSHING: I think there was part of a question there. Let me try to frame what I see as some of the history behind this dynamic. If we take a look at Kyoto, which we were an active party in negotiating but ultimately did not ratify, we end up with an agreement which today covers -- give or take some given the Parties that are still in it -- about 15 to 20 percent of global emissions. If we look at Cancun, which the U.S. has also been a leader in designing, we now have an agreement that covers 80 percent, or more, of global emissions. To my way of thinking, that's an enormous step forward in solving the problem -- 15 percent to 80 percent. The Kyoto Protocol, which has this fairly small number of active players, is an agreement that was legally binding on its Parties. The agreement we have currently reached, we couldn't and were unable to get there with the Parties that were prepared to take action. Had we made it legal in Cancun, the likelihood is we would never have had an agreement, but the fact that we got the political commitment has in fact been leading to a change in all major Parties' directions and trends. Again to me, a huge step forward.

The last thing that I would says is that many of the instruments that are framed under the agreement are ones that never would have existed without active U.S. participation and, in many senses, leadership. The structure in our future looks at new needs for technology. It looks unfortunately -- because we were unable to avoid all damages as a world -- at the need for an adaptation framework. It discusses the ideas around the structure of markets for forests and forest offsets. The U.S. is an active player in all of those conversations and, as I look at this history, the further engagement is one that is in no small measure a function of something that we're quite proud to be part of.

QUESTION: Mr. Pershing, one of the key issues here is the legally binding agreements. Back in the States you have a very fine Constitution set of laws, it's very clear, it says thou shalt not cheat, thou shalt not murder etcetera etcetera, and it's legally binding. In this international forum, the States has almost a double standard. Can you explain why your reluctance to commit to legally binding agreements here, or I hope you are not going to blame China entirely. Thank you.

DR. PERSHING: I think there's a couple of questions that this raises. The first, you speak to our Constitution, one of the questions behind our Constitution is the balance of power between the various branches of our government. It's a little bit unusual in the context of international governmental systems, ours is structured with an equal balance between our legislative branch, and our executive branch, as well as our judicial branch. We have a requirement that in order to pass a legally binding treaty, you need to have two-thirds of the members of the Upper House approving of the instrument. They have made clear, and frankly some of the executive branch strongly supports, that the idea of the United States going forward with a legally binding agreement in which a substantial share of global emissions are not included is not a particularly effective or successful mechanism to control the climate change problem.

If we just take a few narrow examples, the existing structure under the EU, as I mentioned, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of emissions. The U.S. about the same size. The vast, vast majority of the remainder comes from a handful of major emerging economies. The structure of a legal agreement in which we are bound and those economies are not is untenable. It will not solve the problem. It would not be accepted in the United States. We are working for an agreement, which we can endorse, which we can participate in, and primarily which works on the environmental problem, which means that all countries need to be in.

QUESTION: You said that you did not foresee any modification of actions before 2020. Would this then preclude people proposing, certain countries proposing greater emission reductions than one sees under the Cancun agreement, and how does this fit in with the IPCC recommendation that there should be emission cuts of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, with the peaking year in 2015?

DR. PERSHING: What I wanted to try to convey is the idea that countries would change their current pledges that they've listed in the agreement seems unlikely to me. Countries made a set of pledges they originally made directly after the Copenhagen negotiations and affirmed in a more formal sense and contained in a document of the Convention and its secretariat in Cancun. I don’t see the major economies shifting those actions.

There are others that are not in. Certainly there are countries that have yet to take on pledges. There’s an opportunity for those countries to do so. It’s possible that some countries may choose to update their pledges. But I think the vast majority are currently working actively on implementing the pledges through 2020 that they’ve taken on.

With regard to the IPCC, there’re a number of different points that one can make. I was in fact a lead author on that chapter that talked about 25 to 40 percent. In the discussions leading up to that chapter, I would note that there are a relatively limited number of scenarios from which it’s drawn, but there’re also a number of pathways through which you can meet the kinds of long term targets that countries are seeking. In particular, we agreed to a long term visionary goal of seeking to stay below two degrees. Many, and essentially an infinite number of pathways, get you there.

All of them require action in the near term. Many, many of them would pass through exactly the set of actions that countries are currently taking. All of them would imply additional action post-2020. So it depends on what you do now, it depends on what you do after 2020, those still lead you to a two degree outcome.

So the question then becomes how do you do that? How do you set it up? It’s been quite clear that if we required a legal obligation to act, we would not have gotten even the current set of actions. So in some sense that structure would have precluded the major emerging economies from joining this process, and yet those economies represent the vast majority of future growth. And unless we can bring them in, we can’t solve the problem.

So a practical, a pragmatic, a scientific outcome requires these kinds of outcomes, these kinds of activities and this kind of global collective engagement. That’s what we’re seeking.

QUESTION: Coming back to the question of legally binding, the United States is negotiating for legal parity with all major emitting countries. If it should happen that your position is accepted by those countries, and you still have to take this back to the Senate for approval, is it reasonable to expect that the other countries, given the fact that the United States Senate has not approved an international treaty in I don’t know how long, I think even the Law of the Sea treaty has not been approved yet. So given this fact, what could you do? Could you agree in the context of these negotiations to a legally binding agreement when the possibility of rejection by the Senate is very likely?

DR. PERSHING: It’s kind of hard to deal in hypotheticals like this. I think I’d be much more interested in seeing what kind of an outcome comes from this process. I think you could very clearly state it in the opposite direction. If there is an agreement and the agreement legally binds the United States and does not legally bind other countries with the same level of force, it is clear that we could not ratify such an agreement. We did not in the past. I doubt we would at any point in the future. So I take it in the other direction. The reason that we’re negotiating for that kind of parity is that that becomes a basic requirement for us to be able to move forward.

I think there are multiple ways to go. I’m not sure that that issue of legal form will in fact be resolved here, or needs to be resolved here. We’ve got a whole set of actions that countries are taking under the existing agreement which move us forward through the year 2020. The context of what comes next is to be discussed. That’s part of the conversation. The narrow dynamics of what form may not be the key issue at this time. Thanks very much.

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