1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Climate talks

June 5, 2009

Much of the world remains enthralled by a fundamental shift in US climate policy. Washington's international engagement on fighting climate change is taking on new dimensions, a top US negotiator told Deutsche Welle.

A polar bear with its head to the ice
Renewed US interest in fighting climate change has everyone's attentionImage: AP

Jonathan Pershing is the US deputy special envoy for climate change and is currently taking part in UN-sponsored negotiations held in Bonn. He is a key advisor on US international climate policy and strategy.

Pershing told Deutsche Welle about the United States' objections to a draft agreement on long-term reductions to greenhouse gas emissions, and the country's environmental plans.

Deutsche Welle: The first draft of the text of the UN climate treaty was accepted on Monday, despite the fact that there was criticism from both the industrialized and emerging nations. What is it from the US side that is not working out in this first draft?

Jonathan Pershing: You have to be careful about how you characterize what was put on the table. It was a text prepared by the chair at the request of the parties in an effort to synthesize over 70 individual submissions from 70 different countries. What the chairman tried to do was to put it all into one thing, making some recommendations about structure and form and organization as well as trying to combine aspects of the countries' texts.

Jonathan Pershing, US Deputy Envoy for Climate Change and head of the US climate talks delegation speaks during a UNFCCC press conference
Jonathan Pershing is taking part in UN climate change talksImage: IISD

What he did was say, 'Can we use this as something to work off of?' He explicitly said he did not intend to make it a binding text. He anticipates that, over the course of this two-week session, people will substantially modify it.

From the US perspective, it's missing a couple of key points. It is missing the notion that there are common obligations - not just differentiated obligation. The way the text is framed, it presents it as if developed countries had commitments to act to reduce emissions at home and to provide financial support for developing countries and that developing countries had the obligation to receive financing. That's not a balance that's going to work.

If you look at the world the way it was 20 years ago, when we did the first agreement, maybe there was some sense that there were wealthy countries and poor countries and you could divide them up neatly. That list isn't accurate anymore. It doesn't include the fact that countries have developed and have huge capacity but, under this somewhat archaic deal, don't have any commitments. We'd like to frame it so the commitments of all parties are explicit.

And then there is a differentiation, because we are clear that there are differences between countries, and they should have different obligations.

Part of the text suggests rich nations set aside 2 percent of the gross domestic product to be put towards helping poor nations tackle climate change. Is this something the US approves of? Is it too much, not enough?

The United States has made it clear that we think there is going to be a need for financial support to manage the climate change problem. However, we have not developed our own numbers.

The convention talks about obligations that might total $100 billion for activities like mitigation. But if you take a look at that, it includes all the mitigation requirements in China, South Korea and Singapore. These are not countries that need financial assistance from the rest of the world to mitigate. After you take those out, you have a much smaller number. So which number is correct?

China and India are two of the biggest carbon emitters in the world, China being the biggest overall. But China is also a developing nation. What is the approach to a developing nation that is industrialized to the point that is produces more carbon than other developing nations?

A Chinese woman wearing a face mask and riding a bike on a smoggy street
China can't be treated in a uniform manner, Pershing saidImage: picture alliance/dpa

There are two things. The first is that China is, in some sense, more than one country. On the margins and the coasts you have cities that look like the most developed cities in the world. That's not a part of the country that needs support.

There is another part of the country which is agricultural, rural, quite poor and in which you have enormous demands and on which the impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately. There is an issue about whether you need to facilitate actions for that part of the country that might best be done with international communications and international support.

But it's fairly clear that China doesn't really want money in that regard. China wants information, it wants advice. You have to distinguish between what is needed, what might facilitate change, what China itself wants, and what the international process can do to support them.

The second part of the question has to do broadly with what developing countries are doing. The diversity between countries is at least as great as the diversity within countries, like in China. In a per capita emissions average, the average is brought way up by the cities on the coast and brought way down by those rural poor. But it's the cities on the coast with the industries that are making the emissions and those are areas that require new efficiencies, new technology, new policy investment and new rules to limit that growth in ways that are unfriendly to the climate.

One of the things that is very clear about this particular problem is that, while there are constraints we are imposing, these constraints represent opportunities for new financing and new technology, for new jobs and long-term growth for an economy in a green way.

A number of developing nations are calling for a cut of greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized nations to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. A US Congressional panel last week said the US would cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. What is the reaction you've received to that?

Sun sets behind a power plant
Studies of greenhouse gas emissions is often difficult to compareImage: AP

What we've heard back is that's not enough, that the developed countries need to do more; that it should be at 25 percent and that the base year is wrong - you shouldn't use 2005 but 1990; that it only partly fulfils what they think should be done.

But at the other end - and you hear this more in informal conversation - people are extremely pleased about it. The sense of the fundamental shift in US policy is captured in that proposal. The sense that we have moved from where we were less than a year ago - with essentially objections to any domestic climate policy carried over to objections to international climate policy - is now new. What we now have is a serious, clear and very aggressive commitment to change and I think for many countries at this meeting and internationally we are seeing that reflected back in interest in our engagement and how they intend to engage as well.

Carbon trading was part of Kyoto and set up on international markets, including in the European Union and in the US, in California and the north-eastern states. How is carbon trading going to work in relation to the new Copenhagen agreement?

Smoke coming from a power plant
An international emissions market could lead to less CO2 in the air

The view [in the United States] is that this is a significant and very cost-effective option for emissions reductions. It doesn't say you have to do this if you are a certain kind of industry, it says that there is now a price on carbon and sends a signal to all industries that if you do things you can avoid that cost. It also provides the incentive to do the research and development to put into place various kinds of institutions and structures - power plants, new roadway structures, electric busses, greater efficiency of appliances - all of those things are now incentivized because there is a price. That's a domestic program at the moment. Our Congress is currently working on national legislation that would supersede these local initiatives and be a much more inclusive program. The issue then is how it links internationally.

There are a number of ways through which it could link. We're interested in all of them. One is through project offsets, where an individual company can undertake a project that reduces emissions outside of its current portfolio. It can get some of the credits for those reductions and apply them against its obligation. As long as the emissions are reduced and there is credibility and integrity in that system, you actually see reductions happening. Those are things that are under the climate convention as well, something called the clean development mechanisms. It is quite likely the US will use those provisions in our domestic process.

A second part of the program is one that is going forward very actively in the European Union: the emissions trading system. There is an open question as to whether and, if so, how, a US trading system would link to a European system. Most expectations are that we would in fact create that link on a bilateral basis. Companies in the United States, trading in a US market could engage with companies in the European Union trading in the European market and vice versa. But we haven't got that far yet. That's the next stage of the negotiations between the US and the EU.

Interview: Mark Mattox (sms)

Editor: Kate Bowen

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A Moscow apartment bulding that was destroyed by drone attacks
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage