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Dr Jonathan Pershing is the programme director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the US
Dr Jonathan Pershing is the programme director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the US
INTERVIEWS
13 June 2022 13:42

The Carbon Brief Interview: Dr Jonathan Pershing

Xiaoying You

06.13.22

Xiaoying You

13.06.2022 | 1:42pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Dr Jonathan Pershing

Dr Jonathan Pershing is the programme director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the US. He had led the programme from 2017 to 2021 before serving as the US’s deputy special envoy for climate, under John Kerry, from February 2021 to early 2022. He returned to the foundation in March. 

A veteran diplomat, Dr Pershing has worked under four US presidents and attended every single UN COP climate summit since the first meeting in Berlin in 1995. He served as the climate envoy under the Obama administration and helped negotiate the Paris Agreement

  • Pershing on US-China climate cooperation: “[T]hese are the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world…Without both of them engaging, there is a very, very little prospect for a successful outcome.”
  • On joint efforts to tackle methane: “We’ve seen an increasing level of attention paid to the methane agenda…If we can really cut back on that, we’d begin, I think, a very helpful process toward the overall trajectory we’re seeking.”
  • On the challenge of virtual meetings: “I think it’s a problem that it’s only been virtual. I think both sides [US and China] would welcome more personal contact. A lot of information is exchanged over a cup of tea, that you don’t necessarily see when you look at each other on a screen.”
  • On the value of UN climate talks: “It’s the only place in which countries around the world formally, at a governmental level, and increasingly at a head-of-state level, get together and commit themselves to certain kinds of actions, commit themselves to what their countries will do, commit themselves to a joint effort to advance the agenda. So, in my mind, that’s an enormous value.”
  • On media coverage at COPs: “[It is] a mechanism where governments are being held accountable by a public voice. And that public voice is elevated because the countries of the world are gathering and people are paying attention.”
  • On the South Africa Just Energy Transition Partnership: “[T]here are political hurdles that have to be managed. But I think it’s a model that, if we can succeed, could be replicated, could be scaled and could make a huge difference.”
  • On Biden’s climate impact: “If we look at where we were two years ago, at the end of the previous administration, things looked rather like the US wouldn’t engage. Re-engagement, I think, opened up success in Glasgow. I think without the US, you wouldn’t have had these negotiations with China, you wouldn’t have had the kind of movement that we saw globally, because others were, frankly, hiding behind the US, which was not acting.”
  • On the US infrastructure bill: “[T]he single largest climate bill that was ever passed, ever, in the history of the United States, is the bill that dealt with infrastructure. We don’t call it a climate bill, but there are billions of dollars in that bill that will deal with new energy infrastructure.”
  • On the US supreme court rolling back executive climate action: “I don’t believe they will. I think on the margins, there’ll be disagreements…But what I understand from the legal underpinnings of most of these laws, there’s a fairly robust legal conclusion, legal agreement that these are legitimate ways for a government to act.”
  • On public sentiment towards climate action: “I think public sentiment has shifted…even [from] a few years ago…They look at wildfires; they look at the floods; they’ve got the tornadoes in the storms; they look at sea level rise in places like Miami; they look at the houses burning down around the world; they look at 1,200 year droughts that are affecting the West…And they’re not willing to tolerate inaction. And that, too, is different and drives the politics.”
  • On China addressing non-CO2 emissions: “Chinese emissions are the largest in the world. Their non-CO2 emissions are also the largest in the world. And the fact that they’ve taken that up, that’s a new development over the course of this year.”
  • On China’s international coal finance pledge: “China has committed itself to reduce its own investment in overseas coal. That’s a huge change from where the country was even a year and a half or two years ago.”
  • On China’s international engagement: “China has been engaging in some of the conversations internationally in ways that it didn’t use to do. I look at the conversation between the US and China around the pact that was reached in Glasgow. I think that’s a mark of Chinese engagement, not disengagement. I think that’s gonna be quite pivotal.”
  • On his expectations for COP27: “Unlike previous meetings, there isn’t a single negotiated outcome that people are seeking. We’re not looking to finish a rulebook. We don’t have a new negotiation around targets. What we have instead is implementation. How do you do that? You need money. You need political agreement and you need national action.”

Carbon Brief: First of all, you were the “No 2 climate diplomat” of the US from 2021 to early 2022, what was your impression of the US-China diplomatic relationship on climate over the past year?

Dr Jonathan Pershing: So I think a few things. The first one is that these are the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. These are the two largest economies in the world. Without both of them engaging, there is a very, very little prospect for a successful outcome. And I think what was interesting in this past year, is an explicit recognition of the role that each side played and a desire on both sides to find common ground to move forward. It doesn’t mean it was easy. It doesn’t mean the relationship was not affected by other non-climate related issues. Of course, it was. But it does mean that, in spite of that and in spite of the difficulties in connecting this year with Covid, the sides met, the sides connected. There were a series of negotiations, most notably culminating in an agreement in Glasgow, where both sides agreed on very specific actions. And they’ve now, again, met. We saw that [US climate envoy] secretary [John] Kerry met with [his Chinese counterpart] minister Xie Zhenhua in Davos and already began moving the next stage forward. So I think the conclusion I would reach is that this was a very constructive year, although a year that doesn’t yet answer some of the difficult questions that have to be answered. 

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CB: You mentioned Kerry’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, in Berlin and Davos. [Kerry and Xie met again in Stockholm after this interview took place.] Kerry told the Associated Press that the US and China “were close to” agreeing on the structure of a [climate] working group and how decisions would be made. What shall we look forward to in the upcoming US-China climate change working group? What issues is it likely to address upon establishment?

JP: So there were some very discrete specific things [as] part of the agreement. There was an agreement to work really on a number of policy areas that could advance the emissions reductions effort. There was not so much [on] technologies. I think the competition that’s now there between the US and China on technology makes a technology framework more difficult. So it’s more of a policy orientation. How are both sides intending to deal with the questions around deep penetration or expansion of renewable energy. It’s a bit of a variable supply. You need to assure reliability in the system. There are policies both sides are looking at that could enable a much deeper penetration. There are policies that they’re looking at on both sides to enhance the capacity to deal with battery storage. There are technologies that might enhance the capacity for taking carbon out of the atmosphere, direct air capture, but also to take carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the waste stream from power plants, carbon capture and storage. So a set of those policies will be a big focus. 

A second area that was really elaborated and, I think, will be a significant area of work will be the work on methane. We’ve seen an increasing level of attention paid to the methane agenda. I think it really saw much higher profile at the meeting in Glasgow: a lot of interest from countries around the world; an agreement by the US side leading into Glasgow to pull its own methane report together [and] looking at its methane trajectory; agreement by China in Glasgow and explicitly mentioned in the joint agreement that it would seek to develop its own plan this year and make that available. So really both sides [are] working a lot on this agenda. We’re seeing significant news reporting that suggests that a combination of coal, of increased oil and gas production, of a variety of agricultural activities and industrial activities have significantly increased global methane emissions. Satellite data corroborate this. And what we need to do is really reduce it. The numbers that people cite are enormous. [Looking at] methane emissions in a fairly near term horizon, say the next 20 years, methane emissions are the equivalent of all of our transport emissions. In other words, our trucks, our cars, our aeroplanes. That’s an enormous share of the global total. If we can really cut back on that, we’d begin, I think, a very helpful process toward the overall trajectory we’re seeking to do. 

So anyway, those are the pieces that were agreed. I expect the working group will elaborate on those. We understand from the way the text was drafted, and I haven’t heard differently from anyone, that both sides intend to have both a formal group, government officials, and a group of expert technical advisors who will be part of the process. So it would bring academicians in, it would bring in expert analysts, as well as the government officials who would be leading the overall effort. So I think that we’re going to start seeing the specifics and details, at least that we understood from the press coming out of Davos and Berlin. Those details seem to be close, although we haven’t yet seen the particulars announced.

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CB: Shall we expect more interactions between the Chinese and US climate negotiation teams in the next few months, leading up to COP27?

JP: I think we should. And I think it will come in multiple forms. 

One form is gonna be the very specific engagement at the very highest levels between the governments, so the climate envoys on both sides will likely take the lead in those endeavours. I anticipate that there will also be some technical work at a lower level within governments, between experts at each one’s departments of energy, their environmental agencies, their forestry ministries and agencies, that’ll be one whole track. The other track is gonna be, probably, an increasing level of technical exchange between experts. So I anticipate that it will not exclusively be at a governmental level, we’ll see more of the other. 

I do know that, while the meetings have been virtual, they’ve still been very productive. I’ve been part of a number of meetings since I’ve returned to the foundation, in which Chinese experts and American experts are engaged on a host of different issues. I think it’s a problem that it’s only been virtual. I think both sides would welcome more personal contact. A lot of information is exchanged over a cup of tea, that you don’t necessarily see when you look at each other on a screen. And when you have a large group gathering together, it’s even harder. So I think there’s going to be a lot of benefit when both sides can begin to interact personally. But we have seen a lot of interactions over even the last year or two as this has been developing. We had many academic colleagues who reported, when I was in the administration, about their work, and now that I’m back outside, I’m engaged in these conversations. I know that we’re seeing a great deal of that happening, notwithstanding the difficulties of interaction.

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CB: We talked a little about the COP already. You are probably one of the only people in the world to have attended all 26 COPs. Do you think the annual COP remains important for global climate action and how do you see its role evolving?

JP: So I think they’re very important. And that, of course, is a little bit of a biased view. Obviously, I’ve gone to them. So I think it’s worth my time. But I think it does two or three things. The first one is that it is a goal-setting exercise. It’s the only place in which countries around the world formally, at a governmental level, and increasingly at a head-of-state level, get together and commit themselves to certain kinds of actions, commit themselves to what their countries will do, commit themselves to a joint effort to advance the agenda. So in my mind, that’s an enormous value. 

But we shouldn’t assume that a COP is exclusively a function where governments get together to agree. A COP also serves the function of bringing together researchers, bringing together public advocates, bringing together a voice of civil society, a voice of business, all of whom gather at these meetings. And while the focus may be on what governments agree, the action is actually in other places, as well. The action is what are banks agreeing to do in their finance structures, what are large energy companies agreeing to do. And they talk to each other, and they talk to the governments and they talk to civil society. And they each think about what can they bring to the table and how do they advance the agenda. And the public visibility is a very critical thing. A big COP, a big one, we take Paris [for example] or we take the most recent meeting in Glasgow [for example], has several tens of thousands of people. That’s a big meeting. But if you think of several tens of thousands in a world of billions, it’s a very small share. And yet, the event drives public awareness, the event is covered: now close to a third of the participants in a climate negotiation session are from the media, from social media, from mainstream print media, from television; and people are coming and reporting that back out with a different window into it that each country brings and each reporter brings and passes that information back home. 

So now I have a mechanism where governments are being held accountable by a public voice. And that public voice is elevated because the countries of the world are gathering and people are paying attention. And there’s a two-way flow: governments decide and pass insights back to the people of their countries; people provide pressure or information or concern. And that gives the governments ability to move forward and move on the agenda. Without that meeting, I don’t think those things would happen. We certainly have other gatherings, [but] none of them have the same kind of attention or focus. So I think both sides matter: the ability of governments to make agreements and the ability for the world to see, once a year, the progress that’s being made, the lack of progress that’s being made and push each other to do more.

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CB: You were involved in the International Just Energy Transition Partnership agreed between South Africa and the governments of the US, UK, France and Germany. There are hopes that further partnerships could be agreed by COP27. Do you think these deals could be more significant than the UNFCCC process itself, in terms of delivering results on the ground?

JP: I think you have to distinguish what you’re trying to achieve. The UN process seeks to achieve high-level global goals with discrete actions by commitments by individual countries. This JETP, or Just Energy Transition policy or programme, in South Africa is a very discrete effort by one country to fix its coal problem and get support from a group of other countries that intend to provide financial assistance, technical assistance and engagement to make that happen. They’re very different agendas. 

The question of the JETP and how it’s gone, I think is gonna be very important, if South Africa is successful in making that transition, and the model where there is some concessional or below-market-rate capital provided to South Africa to help with the transition could be copied [and] could be duplicated in other nations. There is an ongoing effort to do so. Most recently, we saw an announcement that came from the president of the African Development Bank, one of the regional development banks…The African Development Bank, the president made an announcement of his intent to raise not just eight and a half billion dollars, but tens of billions of dollars to help the South African transition, and is looking to put a fund together that would replicate the South African model in other parts of Africa. The same group of donors is thinking about other countries in Southeast Asia, is thinking about countries around the world that have similar kinds of problems – looking to make a major transition in their energy infrastructure, but don’t have either the capital, or perhaps the appetite for risk that would enable private funding to flow. If we can manage that risk, and that’s what this project seeks to do, you can replicate it elsewhere. 

But there are some barriers, it’s not always easy. You need, at the moment, a lot of money to make that happen. And concessional finance is tough for countries to come by. [If] you look at the dynamics right now with Ukraine, it may very, very well reduce the public available resources from Europe, from Germany, from the UK, from France. The United States has often been very…had a hard time moving international development assistance funding. So it’s not as if this is an easy path. And at the other end, it’s not so easy for South Africa, or for another country, because it also is going to have to make changes to the way it does business. So on both sides, there are political hurdles that have to be managed. But I think it’s a model that, if we can succeed, could be replicated, could be scaled and could make a huge difference.

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CB: And, in terms of the United States, how do you see the Biden administration living up to its climate pledges, having so far failed to pass major climate legislation and facing the prospect of executive climate actions being undermined by the Supreme Court?

JP: So listen, I think it’s too early to say. You know, it’s really, it’s very difficult to judge an administration based on one year of a tenure. But let’s take a look at the things that have happened, because I think that they give us some signals about intent. 

So during the first year, there were a whole series of individuals put into position. So the first thing, inevitably, that a government does, is to assign people to different roles. The people who have been tasked with the jobs of running the energy ministry, of running the Environmental Protection Agency, John Kerry at the State Department or with the president, these are people with deep and long standing commitments. Gina McCarthy is the head of the White House climate office. These are people who have made this their priority and they are running the institutions of the government that will create change. 

The second thing which happened is some very, very straightforward executive orders. In fact, on the very first day, the president decided to rejoin the Paris Agreement. That’s an interesting statement of intent. And I think that opened up the door for re-engagement [not only] by American diplomats, but also by American business and by government officials. So that process, I think, should not be minimised. If we look at where we were two years ago, at the end of the previous administration, things looked rather like the US wouldn’t engage. Re-engagement, I think, opened up success in Glasgow. I think without the US, you wouldn’t have had these negotiations with China, you wouldn’t have had the kind of movement that we saw globally, because others were, frankly, hiding behind the US, which was not acting. So the mere change, I think, is significant. 

The [third] thing is large scale legislation. Legislation of any country is exceedingly difficult. The fact of the matter is that the single largest climate bill that was ever passed, ever, in the history of the United States, is the bill that dealt with infrastructure. We don’t call it a climate bill, but there are billions of dollars in that bill that will deal with new energy infrastructure: charging for electric vehicles, expansion of capacity for solar, structures that might deal with home efficiency and business efficiency improvements, big R&D investments, these are things that underpin any transition into a green economy of the future. 

You’re absolutely correct. The administration has not succeeded in passing the second part of what it wanted to move. It would have added more money to all of this agenda. I don’t follow it closely enough to know. I’m not in the Senate or in those discussions. But my understanding is that it’s by no means over, that there is an awful lot of room still to go in a conversation about the key elements that would’ve added climate pieces to the work. That probably, in particular, includes the subsidies, the additional tax benefits for renewable energy. Most people that I’ve talked to believe that Congress will, in fact, extend the support for renewable energy, probably the most salient climate piece of the “Build Back Better” programme. We don’t know that yet. There’s a bit of time to go. We won’t really know until the end of the calendar year how that proceeds, because it could come even as late as the end of this Congress term at the end of 2022. So I don’t think we know, but people that I’ve talked to were relatively optimistic that that will happen. 

And then there’s the Supreme Court question: will the court, in fact, back away and knock some of these things down? I don’t believe they will. I think on the margins, there’ll be disagreements of where people go. But what I understand from the legal underpinnings of most of these laws, there’s a fairly robust legal conclusion, legal agreement that these are legitimate ways for a government to act. During the Trump administration, there were efforts to roll some of those pieces back and they decided not to. I think they decided not to, because that’s not where the congressional bills had gone. And that’s not what the rulings were looking like. So well, I think there will certainly be debates, there will certainly be cases that I wish might go a different way. I think the underlying dynamics of what the court will rule will not overturn the broad agenda that we’ve outlined. 

And then finally, the question is: What else could be done? What are the additional steps that might be taken? And I would say there are three or four. The first one, there are executive orders under this administration that will be moved forward, above and beyond those of congressional bills. Two, the states are clearly acting. We are not seeing a cessation or a halting of state programmes, just because they like [what] Biden [is doing] on climate more than they liked the previous president. So we’re seeing movement from states. Three, we are seeing significant action from the private sector. We used to not feel the private sector was out there. Now the private sector is leading. If we look at companies in the Fortune 100, the largest companies in the world have made pledges to reach zero emissions over the next few decades. That’s a remarkable change from just a few years ago. And when these companies make commitments, they’re often backed up by literally billions of dollars in assets. So we take a car company [for example]. A car company decides to go to net-zero vehicles. It builds new factories to make those cars. That is literally billions of dollars of investment. They’re not going to walk that back. They’re going to keep moving on that front. And then finally, I think public sentiment has shifted. I don’t believe that public sentiment is where it was even a few years ago. At this point, you look at where people are. They look at wildfires; they look at the floods; they’ve got the tornadoes in the storms; they look at sea level rise in places like Miami; they look at the houses burning down around the world; they look at 1,200 year droughts that are affecting the West. And they think that that’s part of a climate dynamic. And they’re not willing to tolerate inaction. And that, too, is different and drives the politics. 

So I think that this is a much more complicated story than just whether the Biden administration can pass one additional piece of legislation. I think it’s a much larger and comprehensive conversation.

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CB: And across the Pacific, in China, in your opinion, what are some of the most important climate actions China has taken in the past year?

JP: So I think there are quite a number of things that China has done. Some, I wish they would have done differently, and I think I can wish that for any country. But China’s actually put in more renewable energy than any other country in the world, and is continuing to grow that renewable capacity. It has a great deal of demand. And it is meeting that demand in no small measure with new sources of renewable power. I think that that’s huge. I think that that brings the price down globally. I think that enables deeper penetration inside of the Chinese economy. 

I think that China has also begun to worry much more. And we saw that over the course of the last year around reliability. And I think that they’re working hard to manage reliability. It actually doesn’t work for an economy, particularly a growing economy, to see blackouts. It doesn’t lend itself to stability. It doesn’t lend itself to options for changing to a new structure. I don’t think they’ve solved that problem. But to be quite candid, very few people have solved that problem. So it’s not as if there’s a simple solution and China hasn’t taken it. There’s a very complicated set of things and China is working on it. I think we’ve also seen some commitments on the Chinese side to work on non-CO2 gases. They are just starting. They are very, very large. Chinese emissions are the largest in the world. Their non-CO2 emissions are also the largest in the world. And the fact that they’ve taken that up, that’s a new development over the course of this year. Now, in some of these cases, the progress has been limited. But there hasn’t been that much time since they’ve managed to move that forward. I think we’re seeing that. 

The second thing which I think China has done is not just domestic, it’s international. China has committed itself to reduce its own investment in overseas coal. That’s a huge change from where the country was even a year and a half or two years ago. Now that investment has already slowed down and it’s almost stopped, and we’re seeing its commitment showing up in material ways in its investment. I’d like China to put new investment into renewable energy. I don’t think that’s going as fast as it will ultimately be, but it’s currently beginning to grow up and to ramp. I think that’s going to be a significant partnership as well. 

Finally, China has been engaging in some of the conversations internationally in ways that it didn’t use to do. I look at the conversation between the US and China around the pact that was reached in Glasgow. I think that’s a mark of Chinese engagement, not disengagement. I think that’s gonna be quite pivotal. 

Now all of these things come with caveats. China’s emissions did grow this past year. They grew a lot because of the concerns about reliability. They grew because of the increase in coal demand. They grew because of an economy that’s resurging, as Covid has slowly kind of moved through the system. And people are coming back with new jobs and demand has gone up, and Chinese products are in high global demand. That is something that China is going to have to manage and hasn’t yet figured out how to do so. But if you look at the statements that were made by [China’s] president [Xi Jinping], in terms of his commitment, he was pretty careful, but also pretty clear. He said, we will not be bound in the near term, not to grow our economy, but we are going to be mindful that we are still on a trajectory to address the climate change problem. He put both into his speech. I think that both are real. And the question is, can collectively the community and, in particular the Chinese community because this is part of the Chinese question, will they find a pathway to reduce emissions that manages the coal demand? I think they have ideas. I think some of those ideas are starting to move. But I think that others are yet to be seen at the scale we need.

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CB: COP27 is less than six months away. What do you look forward to the most in Sharm el-Sheikh?

JP: So I think the meeting in Egypt is going to be rather different from the meeting in Glasgow, for several reasons. I think the world has seen a real shift. So before, when we were in Glasgow, the Russians had not yet moved into Ukraine; there was no kind of consideration of the price volatility and inflationary numbers that we’re currently seeing; the kinds of price questions that have driven global economies to very different choices, we were not seeing. 

At the same time, some of the most significant climate damages are before us. We’re seeing real issues now in food security, partly because Ukraine and Russia have had really declining exports, but partly because we’re seeing droughts and below-average harvest levels in other parts of the world. And those below-average numbers are often associated with climate change itself. 

I think that we’re seeing a meeting in Egypt which has a very different agenda than a meeting in Europe. The Egyptian agenda will be, in part, about adaptation. It’ll be about risk. It’ll be about water. Things that really affect North Africa and, in particular, the Middle East, which is a very dry part of the world. But we’re also seeing agendas around finance. Egypt, for a long time, has been desperate for additional international financial support for its own development and growth. And that’s consistent with much of Africa. 

This is a meeting that is technically an African meeting, they rotate around the world. This is the opportunity for the African issues to be elevated and showcased. Africa has got a series of development needs that are going to be much more front and centre than for Europe, which has a very different point in its development trajectory. Those things will make it a different session. 

And then finally, I think the global tensions will spill over, they always do. These are meetings at the UN, a UN-organised UN process, the UN Convention on Climate Change. Secretariat supports the exercise. And always, the geopolitics is a backdrop and part of the conversation. What will it look like when Russia and the US and China and India are all there? What kinds of issues will get raised by each of those countries? How will the tensions between the countries of the world look going forward? Will oil prices be high? Will they have come down? What about things like the price of renewable energy? How will issues around competition for rare earth minerals, which Africa possesses in abundance, how will that play out into the future conversation? How will it look as we look at inner city development? Among the fastest growing cities in the world are cities in Africa, which do not have services. That, too, will be part of the dialogue. 

So I envision a very different kind of structure. Unlike previous meetings, there isn’t a single negotiated outcome that people are seeking. We’re not looking to finish a rulebook. We don’t have a new negotiation around targets. What we have instead is implementation. How do you do that? You need money. You need political agreement and you need national action. This is no longer just a function of what the global community agrees; it’s how can the global community working together advance national interests and national agendas. I think the Sharm meeting will address those.

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This interview was conducted by Xiaoying You via Zoom on 1 June 2022.

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