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
December 2, 2011

Date: 11/28/2011 Description: Deputy Special Envoy Jonathan Pershing - State Dept ImageView Video»

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much and glad to see all of you.

My name is Jonathan Pershing. I'm the Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change and head of the U.S. delegation for the first week of this Conference of the Parties.

Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change will lead the delegation next week.

We will soon conclude the first week of these negotiations at COP-17. And so before I take your questions, let me provide a few brief comments on the progress that has been made and the direction we anticipate for discussions next week.

First, let me thank the South African Presidency that has done a huge amount of work this week. They have been holding multiple consultations, covering key issues under discussion.

As the negotiations continue, the Presidency's role as a neutral facilitator of a package agreement that everyone can support will become even more important, and likely more difficult. Hard issues are always reserved for the end of the meeting for ministerial consideration.

As we close this first week of the COP, Parties are moving through a very full agenda in a quite workmanlike manner, and we are making progress.

Of course, there are still areas of disagreement, but Parties are working to streamline draft text and coordinating with facilitators to produce a draft document from which we can continue our work next week. And there is still quite a lot of work to be done.

For the United States, our priority is to make fully operational each of the key elements we agreed to in Cancun, including technology, adaptation, finance, and transparency. If successful, we will have made a substantial step forward in the global effort to address climate change.

And I say a global effort because Cancun truly was a global effort. The world came together and agreed on a major step forward in tackling this problem. The targets and actions affirmed in Cancun cover all major economies representing more than 80 percent of global greenhouse gases. Pledges made in Cancun will yield significant reductions in emissions and address the impacts of the climate change we cannot avoid.

As we conclude negotiations this week and look to next week, we should focus on the key issues working to achieve a balanced outcome that helps us move the process forward, delivers on the significant agreements reached last year, and takes another step in addressing the climate change challenge.

Thank you and I'd be happy to answer any questions.

QUESTION: You might have -- you probably talked about this morning, and I'm sorry I just got in. But can you talk about U.S. -- how the U.S. feels about this amendment that the EU just talked about that would outline a process to get countries to a higher level of emission on their mitigation targets? Thanks.

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. There are actually quite a number of different proposals on the table for considering next steps. Some Parties are suggesting next steps that would be between now and 2020. The EU includes some of those in its provisions. Other Parties are considering more specifically a process and a proposal that might look beyond 2020. From the perspective of the United States, the commitments that were made in Cancun take us through 2020. Those are commitments from all Parties. There were pledges that were made by Heads of State. They're for reduction actions; they're for targeted policies -- a variety of different pieces. We don't think at this stage, a year after having made those pledges, that Parties are likely to take on additional different pledges. But there are some Parties that have yet to make pledges. Certainly, we'd welcome those being added to the list. That will, of course, be part of the discussion though from what happens this week and going forward.

QUESTION: I would like to go back to something you said in your first press conference a couple of days ago. That there were many pathways to meeting the two degree target that would involve mitigation efforts post-2020. Everything that we have seen or heard from science recently suggests otherwise, the IEA report saying that we would be locked in to at least a two degree scenario within five years, the UNEP report etc. So, I wondered if you could elaborate on what you were referring to when you said that please.

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. I think there is always a question here about whether there is a single path to any outcome, and the way that we have seen it and the way I think it is possible to visualize it, is to imagine that the further up you go the more steeply you have to come down to end up with the same outcome. So, if we have more emissions, if we can’t stop quite as sharply as we would like, we will have to reduce more quickly on the other side of the peak. And in that sense there are, in fact, technically, many possible pathways that do that.

The more we can do earlier, the less we have to do later. It is desirable to do a great deal earlier but one has to marry a politically pragmatic outcome with a scientifically important conclusion. If you demand more than the politics can deliver, you don’t succeed. And looking for that perfect solution is part of a process of negotiation, but there is no single pathway that one could adopt and know that it was the only approach. There are many, many options.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about climate funding. Where you see some of the hurdles at this point on Friday, and what your expectation really is when we are done here in Durban?

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. There are a series of different conversations going on now with respect to the financing. They fall into the category of a great deal of interest still in the Fast Start. We did a side event at the U.S. Center yesterday in which we talked in some depth about the Fast Start programs. There are a series of materials that are available if you are interested in following up, we would be very happy to provide them to you. I spoke about this also on Monday when I opened up about what the top line numbers were. So, that’s one piece.

The second piece has to do with the Green Climate Fund. We just had a discussion next door; countries are continuing to make the statements that they’ve got. She began (the presidency), Minister Mashabane began with her own remarks saying she looks forward to Parties’ ideas and Parties began to provide them. She only had an hour at that time. We will continue again tomorrow. So, as expected we have a whole series of discussions to walk through.

The Green Climate Fund, of course, is a central issue that is being discussed at these meetings, and there are some differences of view about whether we should move forward with a report that was adopted by, forwarded by, the transitional committee or whether we should still have some further consideration of it. And there are quite a number of Parties, for those of you were at the session of the Conference of the Parties in its plenary meeting on Wednesday, you heard the diversity of perspectives around that. Some wanted to go forward, others do not want it to go forward. Some wanted to go forward with amendments -- we fit into that category, many fit into that category, we are not alone. And there are multiple parts to it, it’s got a technical document, an annex, and it’s got a covering decision that we have to adopt. So, quite a lot of work still to be done on that front.

The third piece is a Standing Committee which is to be considered for development and agreement at this meeting. What are its remits, how does that move forward. Work on that is really just getting underway, so it’s been one of the later topics coming forward. I don’t have much to say about it yet at this point. I expect a lot over the weekend and next week.

And the last topic is what is called Long Term Finance because there are a number of Parties that are interested in talking about what sources might be used to provide long term funding. Our own sense about that issue is it is matter of determination by each party. We don’t believe that there is an appropriate modality which everyone should follow. We believe that the ideas about how a country chooses to raise money and how it puts it forward are a matter for determination by each country.

We do note that we are very interested in finding ways to leverage private capital. From our perspective, the notion that that will be a huge part of what is mobilized seems to be not quite self-evident, but pretty much. One really wants to use those resources as much as possible and use the public funds to leverage those where one can. Thank you.

QUESTION: Dr. Pershing, I was wondering if you could tell us what discussions you've had with the EU about their notion of a roadmap leading to a binding deal by 2015. What sort of accommodation, then, might be from the U.S. on that side and what would be your conditions on signing up to anything like that?

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. You know, it's interesting, as a negotiator one never talks about conditions. That's not the language that we use. We talk about interests, we talk about concerns. At this particular point we have not at this meeting had a conversation with them to focus on that question. We've met with them a number of times. We've talked about a variety of issues. The specifics of a 2015 date were not the focus of our discussion. It's come up but it's not been something we’ve sought to try and resolve.

There are a number of elements, though, to that conversation that are probably relevant. The first one is a view on the part of the EU that there is a need right away to begin next steps. We are interested in a conversation that will happen, but it would have to have certain characteristics. And those characteristics have to be inclusive of all the major economies, that an outcome, if it's to be specified, as the EU has proposed, to be a legal outcome, must also specify the character that would apply in the same legal form to the actions and targets and commitments of all Parties.

So we're not looking for a mechanism in which we would have an obligation to reduce emissions of a legal form, and the major emerging economies would have a voluntary program. That's kind of the Kyoto structure. We are not a party to Kyoto in no small measure because of that constraint. So if we're to make it specific as you have suggested, it would have to include those provisions. And we've told them this. This is not a new discussion. The fact that we haven't met here on that doesn't mean that we haven't met many times before in the run up to these discussions, and that will be part of the consideration of the process going forward.

QUESTION: Just going back to the Green Climate Fund discussion that you've just been in, when you mentioned that you would like the TC report to go forward, but with amendments, could you outline specifically which amendments those might be or what are the most important from the U.S. point of view, and if they're not brought forward, will you in fact oppose the report being adopted?

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. At the moment, I think that there is a whole set of discussions that are underway, so it's premature to talk about how it goes forward. We're into consultations about what happens with that. The kinds of concerns that we have fall into three different baskets. One is a basket of inconsistencies in the report, and we think those should be fixed. The second is a basket in which there's a question about the relationship between this new board and the fund and the Conference of the Parties. And we think that should be properly addressed so that there is an independent process. And the third has to do with what are the arrangements during the period before we have a permanent home for the board and the Fund. In all of those areas, there are decisions to be taken. We think those need to be taken the right way in order for us to move this forward. That's a negotiation that we're in the midst of and we certainly have high hopes that we'll conclude that here in Durban.

QUESTION: I wonder, do you accept that without completely unambiguous commitments to legally binding, internationally legally binding emissions targets cuts in the future by the United States, there is no incentive for any other big emitters to do likewise, and that therefore, within this COP process, the U.S. is the single biggest obstacle to progress in any meaningful deal.

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. No, I don't. I guess I could stop there, but I won't. The answer is, I think to that question, that we have conclusively demonstrated that the issue here that we're seeking is action, and in fact if we take a look at what came out of the Cancun conversations, we had actions from all the major emitters. All of them. They all put numbers on the table. They're all working to implement those efforts, those commitments. And if we think about that proposal, it was not in the same form as Kyoto -- a legal treaty -- so I actually quite strongly reject the notion that action is conditioned on a legal form for a particular document from this process. And in that sense, given that the objective of our effort is not a particular piece of paper, it's a change in the trajectory of emissions. In that sense, in fact we had a huge success in Cancun, and legal didn't have to be part of it to achieve that goal.

QUESTION: Another mandate question: the EU and others say momentum is building for a so-called Durban mandate. Does the U.S. agree with that characterization? Secondly, the comment from earlier this week about multiple pathways has stirred quite a bit of controversy, and I know you addressed it earlier, but could you give a few examples of what sort of, what post-2020 pathway can look like to avoid two degree warming?

DR. PERSHING: Thanks very much. We have a history in this particular process of giving a name to the conclusions that we reach, and one can imagine that those conclusions from this meeting would be called the Durban process, the Durban conclusions, the Durban accords, the Durban agreements, the Durban something, so in that sense I think the articulation of exactly what it is has some different possibilities in terms of naming and alternatives.

I think perhaps more narrowly the question is will there be a formula for a particular proposal for a legal next step. That's what's being debated. My own sense is that, at the moment, what I'm hearing from the major Parties is that while some want it, others do not, and I have not observed a sense in my discussions that they're prepared to change their minds. By that I mean the major economies, the major emerging economies, which have indicated a strong resistance to having to undertake at this stage a commitment to a legal, binding obligation. In that context, the U.S. also would not be prepared to take a legally binding obligation. I think as I said at the beginning, we would not be prepared to see ourselves under such a regime, if those major economies were not, that was one of the fundamental reasons we could not become a party to Kyoto.

Your second question about the multiple pathways, the kinds of things that people are looking at would be a more aggressive improvement to the energy efficiency, a more rapid penetration of renewable technology, a more quick adoption of capture and storage from existing coal or power plants that are run by fossil fuels, a series of policies that would rapidly address the rate of deforestation. All of those have to penetrate more quickly than we're currently seeing them move. First, you slow the top to slow the rate, then you reach some peak, and then you start to decline. We need to continue to increase the rate of improvement of those policies.

One of the things that I note that the science is fairly clear upon, is that often there's a path dependency. What that means is the things you do early are things that have an effect in the out years. In that sense, a great deal of the work that countries are really seriously looking at will have a significant effect in later years. Those are programs, for example, on technology development, on R & D. Those are programs that begin to set the stage for what you could do, not in 2020, but maybe in 2025. Those are programs, for example, like those taken in the United States to begin to train science and math teachers and to have a whole program where the next generation of engineers is developing new technologies. That crop of students, that group of new PhDs, that community of experts are the folks you want to be doing this work.

You want to have programs in place. You want to have policies in place. You want to make it possible that when they come along those ideas penetrate into the economy more quickly. That dynamic will bend the curve more sharply, and if we're successful, that dynamic is exactly what we should be seeking to provide and would make this outcome realistic. It does not mean you can do nothing now. You have to do a lot now, and countries where they are succeeding in making that first step, we have to continue, we have to take further steps. I in no way wanted to indicate that the idea that there were multiple pathways meant that there was any abdication from the importance of moving today, and moving quickly today.

MODERATOR: Thank you. That concludes our briefing.