Pershing says ‘high-ambition coalition’ could see life post-Paris

By Jean Chemnick | 04/25/2016 08:38 AM EDT

UNITED NATIONS — The State Department’s new top climate official wants to deploy the alliance of nearly 100 nations that successfully demanded an aggressive deal in Paris last year outside the main U.N. global warming negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry sits with U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing (left) after signing the Paris Agreement on Friday.

Secretary of State John Kerry sits with U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing (left) after signing the Paris Agreement on Friday. Photo by the Department of State, courtesy of Flickr.

UNITED NATIONS — The State Department’s new top climate official wants to deploy the alliance of nearly 100 nations that successfully demanded an aggressive deal in Paris last year outside the main U.N. global warming negotiations.

Jonathan Pershing, who took over the top post at the Office of the Special Envoy for Climate Change a few weeks ago, said the so-called high-ambition coalition that helped deliver December’s accord could also inject ambition into negotiations over shipping and airline emissions.

An even bigger prize would be an amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer aimed at phasing out heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Pershing said. Speaking at a briefing following Friday’s signing of the Paris Agreement, he said an agreement on the Montreal Protocol would "be a big climate win" because HFCs contribute greatly to warming in the short term.


"In my mind, the question ultimately is, how do you keep the pressure on in all of these agreements to think about the climate benefits?" Pershing told ClimateWire.

Jonathan Pershing
Jonathan Pershing. | Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy.

"So if this group gets together and makes explicit that that value is there, that’s what we want to do," he said. "This group brings that sense of urgency and commitment that’s quite important."

Pershing spoke at an event hosted by the coalition, which emerged late in the Paris summit but was credited — along with small island states more broadly — with winning the inclusion of an aspirational goal for limiting post-industrial warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The coalition was spearheaded by then-Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum and included the European Union as well as other progressive island and Latin American nations. The United States and Brazil were later entrants.

About 30 members of the coalition met ahead of the signing, along with advocacy groups, supporters and former Vice President Al Gore, to mull future goals.

"Some people, including the United States and the European Union, think there is still a role for the coalition in moving forward beyond Paris," said de Brum.

For the time being, he added, the group will "keep the pressure on our partners to ratify quickly — let’s get the numbers up there — and then keep moving forward."

U.S. announces $15M to aid transparency efforts

The trio of agenda items that Pershing mentioned — shipping and aviation emissions and HFCs — has long been on the administration’s bucket list for climate change, and all could be concluded this year (ClimateWire, April 20).

In bilateral agreements with China and other countries, Obama has sought agreement on an amendment to the treaty for ozone-depleting substances that would phase out heat-trapping chemicals used for cooling and refrigeration. The goal is now within reach — and could become a reality in July, when parties to the Montreal Protocol hold an extra meeting in Vienna.

The International Maritime Organization met last week to consider — and reject — a work plan to develop carbon regulations for shipping. And while the United States and Canada have pledged to push the adoption of a market-based mechanism to cap the growth of emissions from the commercial aviation sector later this year, the issue has been contested by the industry. Negotiations are expected to culminate in September at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s General Assembly meeting.

Pershing, who recently replaced former chief climate diplomat Todd Stern, said other priorities for his team during this final year of the Obama presidency would include encouraging other countries to quickly ratify and adopt the Paris deal, contributing to new rulemaking decisions for transparency and implementation of that deal, and providing technical help to countries as they formulate their climate action plans.

"Transparency really is one of the bedrocks of the agreement," he said, adding that those rulemakings will need to progress this year to be ready when the agreement comes online.

Pershing on Friday announced a new $15 million U.S. commitment to help poor countries develop their capacities on transparency.

The Paris Agreement includes binding requirements aimed at transparency that will eventually be applicable to all, though developing nations would have more time and flexibility to comply. But those rules have yet to be written, and the likelihood that the Paris deal could come online this year or next — years before the 2020 start date that was originally projected — means that negotiators must work fast this year to fill in the blanks.

Record turnout makes early entry likely

Friday makes it very likely that the deal will take force early. The heads of state and foreign ministers who filled the halls of the U.N. headquarters spent the post-signing afternoon navigating a maze of hallways and security checkpoints that made some participants feel that the print of Pablo Picasso’s "Guernica" adorning the second-floor lobby aptly reflected the chaos surrounding them.

The universal theme was how to help the Paris Agreement take effect and then build on that momentum.

Of the 196 parties that met in Paris last year, 175 sent heads of state or foreign secretaries to New York to sign the deal. It was the highest opening-day turnout for any U.N. agreement.

Participating countries are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so if all the countries that signed it were to formally join this year, the deal would have little difficulty meeting the 55 countries and 55 percent of emissions threshold needed for Paris to take force.

But ratification practices in different countries vary, and some countries are expected to take longer than others to join the deal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at an event following the signing, estimated that countries covering about 50 percent of the world’s emissions had committed to sign the deal this year. That includes the United States and China — which has pledged to ratify the agreement by the time finance ministers from major economies gather in Hangzhou for the first Group of 20 summit China has ever hosted.

And 16 states Friday formally joined the agreement, including: Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Grenada, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nauru, Palau, Palestine, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Samoa, Somalia and Tuvalu. Thirty-nine more will be needed to bring it online.

As for the United States, Kerry told a group of countries that have already ratified the deal Friday that his country "absolutely intends to join this year. There’s no question about that."

The State Department is undergoing an internal process to join the deal that does not include Senate ratification — though Republicans on Capitol Hill have warned that such an executive agreement would not be binding on subsequent administrations.

Palau, facing drought, demands global action

Kerry told the gathering of vulnerable countries that had already ratified the deal that the way to ensure the world stays below the warming threshold of 1.5 C is to send a signal to the private sector.

"I don’t think governments can solve this problem," he said. The role of policymakers is to provide the right incentives and remove barriers to low-carbon investment, he said. But the private sector must put up the trillions of dollars of investment that will transform the economy.

"You’re already seeing money move there," he said. "And if we can just make our decisions and stick with it, that’s our best chance of hitting 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees centigrade."

While the United States, China and Canada have all pledged to ratify the deal this year, the European Union has said that will be difficult, given the requirement that all 28 national parliaments to accept the deal before the European Parliament can act. But de Brum said last week that he didn’t accept that excuse from the European Union and that he would lean on his "dance partner," German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to help shepherd the deal through the parliaments quickly. The union is responsible for about 12 percent of the world’s emissions.

European Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete acknowledged at the coalition’s briefing that early entry into force is "desirable and in the interest of all parties."

"Let me assure you: We will do it as soon as possible," he said.

But countries that find themselves on the immediate front lines of climate change — especially small island states — say that even if it takes effect quickly, Paris isn’t enough. The deal only promises to reduce warming to just under 3 C — a level that would still result in mass displacement and suffering in their countries.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau said the deal gives him comfort that the world is "all in the same boat" when it comes to recognizing the threat of warming. But the effectiveness of the deal will rest on how quickly the boat travels toward a more secure future that rests on greater reductions and more assistance to countries like his own.

The president nearly didn’t attend the New York signing, despite Palau’s already having ratified the Paris Agreement, because his country is in the grip of a severe drought that has forced rationing and emergency water delivery. But he decided that joining other world leaders at the U.N. event would be a good way to communicate what is at stake with addressing climate change.

"We fear not just for our generation but the next generation," he told ClimateWire. "How are they going to survive in a world of rising sea levels, of coral bleaching, of frequent typhoons and storms? It’s not a scenario where you want to raise your children, nor do you want them to live in a world like that."

Palau’s citizens face water rationing for at least the next two months, with little or no rain forecast. Micronesia and the Marshall Islands are experiencing the same effects. The region also faces erosion that threatens to disperse its citizens and put an end to their national identities.

"Those are the real possibilities that kind of frighten you when you look at the future and say, ‘Hey, this could happen if the world doesn’t take action right away,’" he said.