People, planet, and the path ahead
State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing, shown here addressing the Our Ocean, One Future conference at the State Department in Washington in September.
Cliff Owen/AP | Caption

US negotiator: 'severe' damage without more climate action

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Nations will meet in Morocco to put flesh on the bones of last year's Paris climate agreement. The State Department's Jonathan Pershing says the parties should put ambitious mid-century targets in their sights.

Countries will be expected to increase their level of ambition on climate change as they gather next month to build on a landmark deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the top United States climate negotiator said Tuesday.

Jonathan Pershing, the State Department’s special climate change envoy, said aggressive action is needed at the UN conference in Morocco. What’s at stake, he said, is the likelihood of dynamics such as superstorm Sandy, the spread of the diseases such as the Zika virus, and the growth of terrorist groups like Boko Haram, all of which he said are threats linked to the warming of average global temperatures.

“Even if we were only able to halt the rise at 1.5 degrees (Celsius), which is an effort we are seeking to do under the agreement, the damages would be severe,” Mr. Pershing said at a Washington, D.C., event hosted by The Atlantic Council.

The conference, which begins Nov. 7 in Marrakesh, follows last year’s Paris agreement in which nations set a target of keeping emissions from rising enough to warm the planet 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100.

The surprising speed with which countries ratified that agreement means the deal comes into force Nov. 4, so negotiators in Morocco can start working on the follow-on mechanics. That won’t be the work of just one meeting, but it can begin to open up some of the thorny issues surrounding climate action.

For starters, climate experts say the commitments made in Paris, even if kept, would allow global temperatures to rise 3.5 degrees – well above the stated 2-degree goal. Pershing said a priority at Marrakesh will be to amplify near-term global commitments in areas such as deforestation, agriculture, and water use.

Even America’s climate commitments to date would fall short of reaching the US pledge to slash emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, climate policy experts say.

On top of that, much of what the US can do rests on the fate of the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration rule to limit electricity sector emissions. That regulation is tied up in the federal courts, though Pershing said the administration is “confident that it remains on solid legal footing.”

Climate aid to developing nations will take a prominent role in Marrakesh, Pershing said. Wealthy nations have a goal of mobilizing $100 billion of annual aid by 2020, but are far off from that mark.

Getting countries, along with banks and other investors, involved in financing clean energy deployment and projects to adapt to rising sea levels and temperatures will be a focus, Pershing said.

“There’s a small number of countries ... responsible for the bulk of emissions,” he said. “Twenty countries, give or take some, [that contribute] 75, 80 percent of emissions,” Pershing said.

“That means you’ve got another 180 countries that didn’t do very much to create the problem that feel the impacts,” he added. “And that’s been a concern that you see in the process of negotiations and the convention discussions, and that’s the community that needs this kind of support.”

The US also will be prodding countries to achieve emissions reductions faster. While the Paris agreement aims to reevaluate country pledges every five years, countries are operating on different timelines. The US path to curbing emissions has a 2025 target, but most other countries are eyeing cuts for 2030.

“We anticipate they will make stronger and stronger pledges going forward,” Pershing said, saying downward trends for renewable energy prices could help facilitate steeper emissions cuts.

But local, state, and national governments along with financial institutions and companies will soon have to make key decisions about how they want to pay for larger shifts away from carbon needed to meet the Paris goal, Pershing said.

The Paris agreement called for countries to investigate those mid-century strategies. That means ideas about how to power automobiles, make buildings more climate-friendly, and whether to promote clean energy technology such as nuclear power or carbon capture and storage of fossil fuel emissions will all weigh heavy in the coming years.

“This is a different vision for the world,” Pershing said. “Can we invest in those things? … That dynamic is going to play out in a fundamental way to drive us to a 2050 horizon to an 80-percent reduction [in emissions], not the 26 to 28 percent reduction that we’re shooting for in 2025.”