LiveAtState: Special Envoy for Climate Change Dr. Jonathan Pershing Previews COP-22

Special Briefing
Jonathan Pershing, Special Envoy for Climate Change
via Teleconference
November 4, 2016

Michael Zeltakalns (Office of International Media Engagement): Welcome to Live at State, the State Department’s online, interactive forum for interviewing senior US State Department Officials. I am delighted to welcome those of you joining us from around the world today. And I understand we have more than a dozen countries viewing right now.

Today we’ll talk with Special Envoy for Climate Change, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, about the upcoming COP-22 Talks in Morocco.

But before I turn it over to our guest, I’ll take care of a couple housekeeping notes. You’ll have the opportunity right now to ask your questions in the box at the bottom part of your screen, if you’re viewing online. If you’re having any difficulty seeing that box, you can email us at: Again, that’s live, L-I-V-E, And we’ll welcome your questions and we’ll try to get to as many as possible today. Please note that we can only accept questions in English. If you’d like to continue engaging on today’s topic after the show ends, you can follow us on Twitter @StateDept, and also @StateDeptOES, or you can use the hastags: #COP22 or #ActOnClimate, to continue today’s discussion.

So, without further ado, I’d like to welcome Special Envoy for Climate Change, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, to the show today. Dr. Pershing, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Jonathan Pershing (Special Envoy for Climate Change): Great, thanks very much for having me.

MZ: And is there anything that you would like to start off with.

JP: Yeah, I just wanted to give people some sense of the context of where we are in the climate negotiations and the process. Many people may know, that last year we had an enormous meeting in Paris. A huge success. A big global agreement. It’s now brought over a hundred and eighty countries together around the problem of climate change.

And the problem’s very severe. How we’ve seen very significant changes in temperatures around the world. Those have changed patterns of storms, storms like Super Storm Sandy, storms like the flooding in Louisiana. Droughts like what we have seen in Nigeria. Issues around sea temperature increases, such as we’ve seen off the coast of Senegal. Global consequences of climate change are becoming more real and the global community has decided to act. Since Paris, we’ve had the Agreement enter into force. That means that the countries that have agreed to do the deal have now moved their domestic processes to start the implementation.

We’ve also seen a series of other agreements marking the intent on climate change. About a month ago, in Montreal, we agreed with the International Civil Aviation Association to really work to phase down emissions from the aviation sector, from aircraft traveling internationally. A few weeks after that, in Kigali, in Rwanda, we had an agreement to begin phasing down something called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. Those are gases that are anywhere from a thousand to thirty-thousand times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. And we’re phasing those down. So, significant global efforts. (03:00)

So, the meeting in Morocco is the first big meeting on climate change, focused on climate change since Paris. And at that meeting, countries will recognize the significant political steps that have been taken, and move with a degree of urgency forward in moving the process onward: the implementation phase. There will be some further work on the details of the guidelines of the agreement. And there will be, what we are calling, the Action Agenda. Ministers, experts, CEOs, investors form around the world will be gathered to talk about the solutions. How do you solve this problem? How do you reduce emissions effectively? And on the other side, how do you cope with the damages that we’re already seeing and that we’re anticipating getting worse? That’s the meeting there, coming up, it will be a bit smaller than Paris, with fifteen thousand people, but it will be a significant presence, a significant civil society presence, a significant CEO and business presence, all working on the next steps on this problem.

So, I’m happy to take questions and have a chat.

MZ: Thank you again for joining us. And it sounds live you and your predecessor, have been successful, so far, in reaching large change-laden accords. And what remains to be done at Cop22? (04:16)

JP: So, we’ve really got a framework with a lot of detail and specificity in it. If you think about the Agreement, for example, we’ve called for a lot of transparency. We’d like to know what countries are doing. We’d like to know how the policies are working. But the specifics of what kind of information would be helpful in understanding those policies, that’s what’s being worked on now. And let’s just take an example, some countries have made decisions around their reduction policies, they’re calling for reducing the intensity of greenhouse gases in their economy. That means, how many units of greenhouse gas for every unit of economic growth or economic welfare. So, what information do you need to understand that? Well, on the one hand, you need information around the emissions themselves. There’s an inventory. There’s detailed emissions data. But, to know about the share of the economy, you also have to have economic data, and that’s a separate piece of information. But supposing your policy was not about intensity, supposing your policy was around the installation of new renewable power. You’ve decided to put in place a significant increase in renewable generation; from wind, from solar, from geothermal. In that context, the information you need to have would be much more focused on what kind of generation capacity you’ve installed. Very different data.

So, we’re putting that together.

A second piece that we’re working on is guidance for adaptation. How can we better improve the exchange of information as countries think about the adaptation strategies their taking?

A third, how do we think about the finance structure? How do we encourage investors to come in? What are the barriers to investment? Why is it moving more slowly for green energy? For clean technology? For programs for more resilience? Can we move the needle? Change the dial? So, more of that investment comes forward? Information on that is also part of the discussion.

So, those kind of details are now being moved through. We can anticipate this isn’t just going to be one meeting discussion. It’ll take a number of months; probably into late 2017 or 2018.

MZ: I understand there is an entry into force during the UN General Assembly, back in September, for Cop21. What will entry into force mean for Cop22?

JP: So, the fact that countries have completed their domestic work changes the nature of what we’re working on. And it has two components. One is inside the negotiations themselves. And one is outside the negotiations.

So, on the inside part. What it means is that there are formal proceedings that only take affect once a number of countries, and in this case it’s at least fifty-five countries, representing at least 55% of global emissions. So, we’ve passed those thresholds. In fact, we’ve exceeded the thresholds on the Fourth of October, and that means that thirty days after, so now in November, we’re seeing the formal dates of entry into force.

But that also means that certain meetings take place. The first meetings of the parties to the Paris Agreement only happened after entry into force. The first one will be in Morocco, because we’ve passed the threshold earlier, in time for Morocco.

Other elements that have to take place are ones around the negotiation of activities, like the transparency rules, like the adaptation discussions, all of which have now been accelerated. So, in some ways on the inside part of the deal there’s an acceleration of all of the technical work. The outside part of the deal may be as important. And I would believe more important. Because, what it’s done is it’s sent a clear signal to the markets, to countries, to policy makers, to civil society, to local and state governments, that this is a commitment made at the highest political level around the world. (07:59)

And the acceleration…what we did in Paris, when we finished Paris, we thought it would be 2020, or so, before we had the deal. It’s happened in 2016. Rapid acceleration! That changes the nature of investors certainty around the markets. That changes the expectations of those looking at policy shifts going forward. All of that means that we’re on a much better track to addressing the climate change problem.

MZ: You mentioned in your opening remarks, the agreement reached with the ICAA, and the agreement reached in Kigali. The President called it “ambitious and far-reaching”. The Secretary called it “The biggest thing we can do in one swoop.” Can you, kind of, give us your perspective on that? What happened? And what did it change?

JP: So, let’s look at them both. They are separate. The first one is the aviation sector. So, what’s the way you think about aviation? Well, one easy way to do that is to say, “What if aviation were a country?” How big would it be? Where would it fall in the range of nations of the world? If aviation were a country, just international civil aviation, were a country on its own right, it would be in the top ten emitters globally. And we, for the first time, have brought that top-ten player into the global deal.

Let’s look at the other one; that’s what happened in Kigali, in Rwanda. There…another way to think about it is how much emissions reduction might you achieve if we were to move forward with phasing down these substances? One of the things the Paris Agreement called for was trying to keep below an increase of two degrees Celsius. Don’t let the plant warm more than two degrees. And strive for 1.5. Doesn’t look like a very big number. Two degrees sounds pretty small, but that’s the difference between vast areas of destruction, and sea-level rise, and storms, and droughts, and not having those disasters. Back to Kigali. What we did in Kigali, by itself, could have reductions equivalent to a half a degree. All by itself.

When you think about two degrees and you think about the scale of what we did there, a quarter of the need is being met with this deal. So, a very, very significant outcome.

MZ: The New York Times was…as part of the HFC discussion, brought in the fact that that may change the way that air-conditioning is made available to people in India. What is your viewpoint on how that agreement will affect those who are just accessing the benefits of air-conditioning in growing economies?

JP: So, what you have to think about, in all of these technologies and in all of these activities, is: What is the objective? The objective is not to slow air conditioning. The objective is to provide that service, cooling your air, without that environmental damage.

And so, there are a number of things that are people doing. So, we’ve found a series of alternatives in the technologies in the air-conditioner itself. The coolant fluid, the stuff that circulates through that electronic device and cools off the system. If we replaced that with a different gas, it may have much, much less of an impact. And we are finding gases and fluids that do exactly that. So, the intent is to make those available, to drive the price down, to make it work in all parts of the world.

It’s very clear, if you live in a country like India, which has temperatures in the hot months that range up to 125 or even up to 130 degrees, you’re going to really need that air-conditioning if you’re going to have any kind of life that you can really manage. And going forward, we anticipate enormous growth in those regions. The same is true for the Middle East. The same is true for North Africa. The same is true for the American Southwest. And the American Southeast, with high humidity and high temperatures. This is a global interest around the mid-latitudes of our nations.

So, as we think about this, the idea is to find alternatives that provide that option at a much-reduced footprint. And what we’ve done here is to send the signal; we want to invest in those alternatives. And we have a number and a technical expert advisory panel, as part of that agreement, has made recommendations on alternative substances. And meanwhile, we’re working on the R&D agenda. We’re explicitly focused on driving down the price on existing technologies and seeking new ones.

MZ: So, we’ve talked a bit about how our agreements affect other countries, but how are they affecting the US? And is the US, specifically, is the US going to be able to meet its own climate targets?

JP: So, the answer is: Yes. It is affecting us and we want it to affect us. We are the world’s second largest emitter. China is the first. We’ve traded places with them not all that long ago. Both of us have substantial capacity, but, unfortunately, substantial emissions tied to our economies. At the end of the day, the question is: How do you continue to grow the economy at the same rate that we’ve been doing, or faster, and still reduce emissions? So, what kind of options are available to us? And to the world, at large?

Well, the first one is a very large share of US and global emissions come from the energy sector. And it comes primarily from the combustion of various fuels that release carbon dioxide. So, what are our choices? Well, the first one is to become more efficient. That’s always an economic winner. If I can produce the same quantity of goods and services with less economic cost, consuming less energy, I win. The market wins. The economy wins. The second, I can switch to fuels that are more efficient; that are less carbon-intense. So, for example, if I move to renewable energy, like wind, or like solar, that’s a big advantage. And here’s where the excitement comes on the technology side. We’ve seen a very, very sharp decline in the price of these alternatives just in the last decade. And it’s an extraordinary rate of decline. Ten times less in terms of the cost of a solar panel.

If we take a look now at the commitments made by the private sector, by utilities around the world, the least-cost option, in some places, is now solar. Not gas, not coal, not oil, not nuclear; solar. That has no greenhouse gas emissions. That moves you forward.

The other part of the deal can be on the transport side. We have to think about how we deal with buildings. We have to think about how we deal with industry. In each of those areas, there are also ways to produce the same goods and services, but without those emissions.

And then finally, we have almost a third of global emissions that come from land use, from agriculture, from forestry. We have to manage those. We have countries making major commitments to reduce emissions from those sectors. Brazil, for example, made an enormous commitment to really halt illegal deforestation. And we’re looking to work with them. There are enormous opportunities in Indonesia, in the same domain. Peru was thinking about this. Countries in Central Africa thinking about this. We have real windows here where we can make the shift and avoid these kinds of damages without a change in lifestyle. But, with new jobs, a new economy, a new economic development program.

MZ: And will the US meet its commitments?

JP: Yes. We are on track now. There are several different commitments the United States has got. The first one was announced when we first came in and it was done in 2009 at a meeting in Copenhagen. The President came forward, committing us to a 17% emissions reduction below the year 2005. In Paris, and running up to Paris, we announced that we would have a 2025 commitment for 26%-28% reduction, below 2005 levels. And we are currently on a trajectory with the policies adopted under this administration to meet those objectives.

MZ: You mentioned technology playing such a key role and bringing these agreements forward and into fruition. What can the private sector bring to the table?

JP: Ultimately, the issue of climate change is not one that governments solve. What governments do is create enabling environments. They create opportunities. They create goals and they set targets, and they open up the doors for investment to move forward. And they open it up for the private sector. They open it up for civil society. They open it up for state and local governments. So, let’s look a little bit at each of those and see where they are.

We’ve seen last year, for the first time, more investment from the private sector in renewable energy than we did in fossil fuel. That’s a startling statement around: a) the fact that the price has come down; and b) the fact that there’s now more certainty in the market that policy and intents of governments will continue in that direction. We’re seeing massive investment in the new technologies, like the electric vehicles. We’re seeing significant improvement from manufacturing sectors to reduce their footprint. Not only of carbon dioxide, but of other greenhouse gases, like HFCs.

At the other end, we’re seeing cities and other local governments also moving forward. One of the things we know around the world is that national governments don’t write things like building codes, the standards that you have for a new apartment house or a new store. No, those are done locally. That’s done by your city or by your state. And those cities and states have made this a priority. And they’re doing it because there’s an economic win, and because there’s an environmental benefit, and because there’s a demand from civil society.

So, all of those things are playing together and clearly indicate a shift in global intent, but in global action.

MZ: Our next question comes from the Philippines, from Alessandra. And she wonders, from the many countries, including the Philippines, that have not yet ratified the Paris Agreement, because their leaders insist that climate mitigation will hamper economic growth, as a sustainable development expert, what would you say would be the foremost advantage to ratifying the Paris Agreement for struggling economies, like the one in the Philippines?

JP: So, I would say several things. The first one is that if we don’t move forward on climate, it has a much bigger effect, negative effect, on economic growth than any effort to ratify. If we look at the damages coming from climate change globally, it is several percentage point reductions in the world GDP. And it plays out more significantly for developing countries than for developed countries. The ones that have the least capacity are the most affected, the most significantly impacted. So, that clearly indicates the need to act.

The second one is that what kind of action you take is going to be dictated by your national circumstances. The Philippines, like other countries, has put forward a proposal for what it would do to provide its emissions reductions and to cope with the damages of climate. The deal doesn’t require you to do additional things. The deal now says, do the things that you’ve committed that are part of your development strategy. And the world has now mobilized resources, technical assistance, capacity building support, to help you deliver that. You have to do part on your own, because no one can act for you. But there is a community now of good practice; a group of partners in finding solutions that may help you make those reductions.

The third thing that I would say, is that if we take a look at the kinds of things that countries are proposing to do, there are real near-term wins. And let me give you just one example: One of the issues globally is that there is a large cohort that either doesn’t have access to electricity, or in fact is paying a great deal for it. This is true on many of the islands of the Philippines, but it’s equally true in rural Africa. As we think about the costs that people pay, the reason they’re paying so much is the fuel is expensive. It’s got to be shipped in, or trucked in, and doesn’t really make it work easily in a local economy. But, if we got you a solar panel, you could have light in your house. You could end up running your cell phone. You could run your computer; you could have your school program. You could run a refrigerator. All for the cost of one year’s shipment of diesel fuel to run a local generator. Now here’s a model, which on one side improves your quality of life, and on the other side has no greenhouse gas emissions. To me, that’s the trajectory we want to be on. We want to be on one that marries this development agenda with this economic agenda, with the climate agenda. And we see enormous opportunities for this kind of strategy for all countries, not least the Philippines.

MZ: The Paris Agreement calls for concrete actions. Where is the transparency built into that? How can we verify that the folks who signed that accord are carrying them out?

JP: So, there are a number of requirements inside the Paris Agreement. One is that you have to provide regular updates on your regular inventories. An inventory is essentially a fancy way to think about countries have to report on all their greenhouse gas emissions from all their sectors. There’s actually six different gases that you report on. Carbon dioxide is the biggest one. About two thirds of global emissions are from CO2. The next largest one is methane. Methane comes from everything from coal mines, to animals, to growing rice in the fields, a huge array of different sources for methane. Another one, nitrous oxide. A big producer of nitrous oxide is fertilizer. How do you manage that for the farm sector? We have HFCs. We have a variety of things called perfluorocarbons. So, there are six different gases that are in the mix. You have to report on each of them. And there are standards for how you report. So, the world has now, on a national basis, information about the emissions from each country.

The second thing, we are now beginning to look at what’s called biennial reports. Which means that every two years, you don’t have to do it every year, but every other year you’re supposed to report on the policies, the programs, the measures, the actions, you are taking in your country to address greenhouse gas emissions. And that report is submitted to the UN Secretariat. And they are circulated in the language they’ve written them, and usually a second language as well, often it’s English, making it available to the global community to access the information and the ideas. And the global community then looks at it and has a way to evaluate your performance. But, you also have a way to benchmark yourself against others. So, it’s not just holding you to account. It’s giving you access to information about what else you can do.

You’ve got a peer country down the street, across the border, who’s doing similar kinds of things and they’ve tried it a different way. Can you learn from them? You’re taking a program that might deal with the transport sector, say in maritime and boats, and they’re going to learn from you, because you had a really good idea and this report makes that information available and transparent internationally.

And finally, there’s a review process. And the exercise is that countries present their information to the global community. There are questions that get asked. The Secretariat can provide technical input into that process. And the collective community benefits from an examination in detail. The overall intent here is several fold. One, that you should do what you said you would do. And people want to know that, because we are all able to act more explicitly and aggressively, jointly than we can individually. Two, so we can learn from each other. And move that forward. And three, because it sends very clear signals about intent and compliance that make this deal work. And lead us to the next phase, because the Phase of Paris is only first of many. We’re going to have to continue to iterate and make more stringent programs and policies to solve the climate problem in the long term. (23:53)

MZ: I want to take a moment here to welcome those who have joined us since the beginning of the program, and remind you that you may ask your questions using the input field at the bottom of your screen, if you’re watching through our web viewer. Or you can just e-mail us at Again, that’s live, L-I-V-E, We are here with Dr. Jonathan Pershing, a Special Envoy for Climate Change.

Dr. Pershing, our next question comes from the African continent. Our questioner wonders what the US is doing to support climate action in Africa.

JP: Thank you very much. Listen, there’s a number of issues that the African community faces. And it’s very hard to think of Africa as a single place. Right? The diversity is vast. If I’m looking at what’s going on in Egypt I have a fundamentally different kind of a question than if I’m in Senegal or in Nigeria. Or if I’m in the Congo Basin. Or if I’m in the southern part of the country or the continent. So, to me it’s very different things. And, unsurprisingly, the United States, but the global community, is working on these in discrete fashions.

So, let’s take a look at a couple of sectors where there’s a lot of activity under way. One of the things that we have realized is that Africa suffers, more than perhaps any other region in the world, from lack of access to electricity. This has enormous consequences. If students can’t study. If the community doesn’t have any light, it limits economic development. If you can’t put in small businesses, you can’t make an economic growth opportunity for your community either. All of this, clearly, relies on electricity. But if electricity costs too much, people don’t have it and can’t make it available. How do we bring that opportunity to Africa?

One of the things that we’ve developed is a program called Power Africa. It was announced by President Obama. It’s been strongly supported by our US Agency for International Development. It’s been a really fundamental activity. And it’s working in over a dozen countries in the continent, thinking explicitly about how to accelerate investment in, and bring private capital to, and concentrate public money, our own and those from other parts of the world, in growing access. But growing access that’s clean. Because, Power Africa is not about getting it any which way, it’s about getting clean power with a very small environmental footprint.

A second thing that we’re doing, one of the biggest land-use areas in the world, one of the biggest forest-cover areas in the world is in the Congo Basin. If you think about, globally, the forest community, you often think about the Amazon Basin. Maybe you think about the work in Indonesia. But the Congo Basin is of the same scale and size. Unlike the others, it’s been less developed. Which means, there’s been less illegal foresting. There’s been less disruption of the ecosystems. How can we preserve and protect that? And make an economic opportunity for the communities which have that asset, that have that resource? It’s been a major program for the United States and joined by others around the world. Norway is very active. Europe has been very active. Japan is very active to think about how can we preserve and protect that forest, but at the same time grow economic opportunity in it.

A third example, one of the clear constraints that Africa faces, and this is a problem in the Sahara and certainly in North Africa, but increasingly throughout the continent, is drought. The impacts of too little water. We’re seeing it as a disrupter in social stability. We’re seeing communities devastated by having year upon year of no production from the farm community, because the water is not available. What can we do about that? Well, part of it is better management of the water we do have. Something we’re working on with Egypt. Something we’ve done in Senegal. Programs in Kenya. Thinking explicitly about how to be more efficient. If I can get the same crops with 1/10th the water, I’d have a big gain in terms of my resilience to drought. We are increasingly seeing that happening. Programs, again, through USAID. Investments through our Overseas Private Investments Corporation, or OPIC. Technology is coming in. And new ideas from the US Department of Agriculture, with our Foreign Agricultural Service. All of this shapes what we can bring to the continent.

So, across the board, a really aggressive effort. It is going to be highlighted at this meeting. This is being held in Morocco. The climate change negotiations rotate on a yearly basis. So, every five years we repeat the regions. This is the African Region. This is the African Region’s focus and turn. And we’ll see in Morocco an elevation of many of the things that I’ve talked about, but also that others are talking about in the continent and how to make a difference on the climate change impacts and emissions reductions. (28:42)

MZ: I think this will be our last question. And for that I wanted to talk for a moment about the oceans. How are the oceans affected by climate change? And what is the interplay between the two? Are they separate and distinct? Or are they similar?

JP: So, when you think about the environmental system, increasingly you can’t extract one component or another and say, “Climate is just the atmosphere!” “Oceans is just the water system.” They’re integrally entwined. At the end of the day, what does that look like in this domain?

Well, the first one is that a great portion of the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are absorbed by the oceans. They go up and the oceans kind of suck them back in, but there are consequences to that. And one of the things that people do not recognize is that the ocean is in part seeing a change in acidity. If you think about acid, think about lemon juice, think about ammonia, think about the things you put on something and they fizz or burn…the ocean is becoming more acid. And it’s notable to the point where some organisms that make their shells out of calcium carbonate, those shells that you see, those shells can’t form. That is because of the increasing acid in the ocean, because of greenhouse gas emissions.

Another piece that is quite interesting, we’re seeing an actual increase in the ocean temperature. It’s unsurprising. As the atmosphere warms, the ocean absorbs some of that heat, oceans themselves see an increase in temperature. In some places, it’s more than one degree. Again, that doesn’t sound like very much, but I was talking to the Minister of Fisheries in Senegal and he told me that one degree seems to be partly driving a rapid reduction in fish populations off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal. “A 40% decline,” he said to me. That’s the kind of change we’re seeing from temperature.

And at the other end, we’re seeing the sea level rise. So, oceans actually intersect, of course, with the continents along the coasts. And one of the things that happens when you warm up those oceans is they get a little bit bigger. Think about just anything that you warm up, it expands slightly. Not very much. But when you’re as big as an ocean, a little expansion goes a long way. And sea level rise from expansion is probably responsible for about half of all the sea level rise we’ve seen. That’s complimented by melting of ice in the poles and in the glaciers. And sea level rise is now affecting coasts around the world. Again, to put that in context, currently we have about sixty-five million refugees around the world, from war, from civil strife, from conflict; if we have a three-foot rise in the oceans, just three feet, and we think it might be bigger than that by the end of the century, just three feet, a hundred and forty-five million people will be displaced. That’s more than twice as many the current global refugee crisis. And we’re having a hard time with the first. Just think about the implications of the second. These intersections between the oceans and the land, between the climate system, the atmospheric system, and the ocean system, have devastating implications. All the more reason for the urgency on managing the climate problem.

MZ: Thank you, Special Envoy Pershing. And those of you viewing us on our web-platform, Live at State, you will be receiving audio and video files of today’s discussion. As well as, a transcript shortly. And I would invite you to continue the discussion on Twitter, using the handles: @StateDept; and @StateDeptOES. And of course, you can follow the discussion using hastags: #Cop22; and #ActOnClimate. Dr. Pershing, thank you again for joining us today. I want to give you the opportunity for the last remarks. Is there anything you would like to share with us?

JP: Only one final thing, and that is to note that this is a problem that’s going to be a long time in solving. It was a long time in the making. But, it requires a level of global commitment and so it’s a pleasure to have a chance to talk to folks around the world as we work on this problem. And I look forward to all of your collective endeavors, to all of our collective endeavors, as we work to solve it over the next decades.

MZ: Thank you for your service and for being with us here today. And good luck in Marrakesh, Morocco at COP-22.

JP: Thank you very much.

MZ: Thank you. And we hope you can join us for another Live at State.