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Jonathan Pershing

14 December 2005
Jonathan Pershing

The Climate Group caught up with Dr. Jonathan Pershing, Director of the Climate, Energy and Pollution Programme at the World Resources Institute, at the COP11 meeting in Montreal, December 2005. We asked him to share his views on key successes and challenges arising from the conference and discussed the potential for regional, sectoral and developmental approaches to climate change mitigation.

Do you feel that there is a role for the Kyoto process going forward?

For me there is no question. The biggest outcome from this conference is that we have agreed to do Kyoto. The United States has been the most frustrating player at the meeting. But whatever happens with the narrow dialogue of the US, the fact that the market now has standing and that countries are moving it forward, is a big deal. So in my mind you don't walk back from that.

Of course, the other question is, what does Kyoto do next? Kyoto's goal is to be a market centre. It's a mechanism through which actions you take can have international cost effectiveness options. But many of the countries in Kyoto also have domestic commitments - the UK, Germany and Japan, for example. Even countries that don't have a hard target are moving forward - China is making progress on transport: they've got an efficiency programme; a major gas initiative and; a huge renewables initiative. These actions are largely driven by the existence of the international process. From my perspective, that's incredibly significant. The agreement on next steps is going to be long and difficult. But there will be next steps, and they will be part and parcel of this international discussion.

How will the long-term position of the US affect progress?

I think the best indicator of US long term policy comes from three different sources. The first is the US States. Look at what is happening in the local government processes of the 50 states. The most advanced is probably California with its automobile and renewable standards. And the Northeast states are now in the process of finalising an agreement on emissions trading. There are also some 20 odd states that have renewables obligations, more than 30 that require inventories, and more than 20 with climate plans. That's really quite big.

The second thing is that congress is beginning to move. Eight years ago, running up to Kyoto, we had this congressional mandate that said the US shouldn't participate in these kinds of international negotiations. Earlier this year there was a resolution passed by the senate saying that the US has to be participating in these international processes. That's a big shift. Then take a look at the legislation being proposed - there is a proposal for a cap and trade system, there's more money in congressional legislation for renewable energy and efficiency. So congress is not static. It's a dynamic and evolving discussion.

The last thing is to think about what US companies are doing. Look at the big deal announcement coming out of GE earlier this year, which said that climate change is a priority and we're going to take steps to tackle it and be profitable in this constrained world. That really changes the dynamic. You're getting a much broader range of big corporate players saying, it's no longer about whether the science is real it's a question of how we're going to play in this new market.

Can emissions trading deliver the reductions that we need?

There are a few questions to answer here. Firstly, are the systems currently stringent enough to do all that we need to solve the climate problem? The answer is absolutely not. The second questions is, are they a mechanism to find least cost solutions, at whatever target level you set? Yes, they're good at that. The third question is, do you need other measures to help support companies trying to find those solutions? - I think the answer is yes. There's a role for government to step in and provide support for new technology developments, to provide information campaigns and technical assistance. A lot of successful historical programmes have relied on those kind of government interventions. And while the market is a signal that pushes companies to look to new solutions, you've got to have support mechanisms that are complementary.

How do we tackle emissions in developing countries?

The key is not to assume that all developing countries are the same. All countries have ways to reduce emissions, but we need to look more at how we differentiate between what countries can do, what their national circumstances are and therefore what their priorities are going to be.

Then all of a sudden you've got these choices which directly link development priorities to the questions of climate and mitigation. And I think that making those links leads to the kind of solutions we have to explore.

So in India, for example, they've got a huge problem with rural electrification - there are about 600 million people without access to electricity. They've got three choices. They can extend the grid, which is mostly coal. They can go to diesel, that's cleaner than coal but has a lot of local pollution problems. Or, they can go to distributed renewable power. Renewables will probably, in the long term, save them money on oil imports to run diesel, and would certainly save a lot of money on extending the grid.

Do industrial sector agreements have a part to play?

The idea with the proposed sectoral agreements is that instead of a national economy with a greenhouse cap, you look at an individual sector. So, for example, there's the transport sector, and within that you can look at roads, off-road vehicles, trucks, trains, aviation. I would argue that the kinds of agreements you're going to have are going to be at that next level down.

At the moment the Europeans are really interested in an aviation agreement. And it turns out that there are probably only a half a dozen airplane manufacturers in the world. So if you can sit them around a table and find a way to incentivise a change in the kind of aircraft engines they manufacture, or make their number one priority {CO2} reduction, rather than noise reduction which we're pretty good at now, then a shift can happen.

The big advantage with these kinds of agreements is that you get away from a process where everybody is talking about everything at once. You're much more focused, and it's a much more manageable institutional dialogue. The downside is that the economic efficiency of things is often predicated on the fact that you can trade off between one high cost sector and a low cost sector. If you pick a high cost sector and you focus there, you may have been able to do something at lower cost somewhere else that you missed entirely.

The second problem is that we don't have many structures in place to realise these sectoral agreements. The institutional barriers could be interesting.

Thirdly, not all sectors are amenable to doing work. For example, you don't want to have too many actors. In aviation they are limited, but in the agricultural sector there's no way of getting to all the farmers in the world.

And finally, even if you manage to focus on those sectors which could really make a difference, like aviation and cement, these still probably account for no more than 30-40% of global emissions.

Will one of these approaches supersede the rest or will they work together?

I see the sectoral, developmental and regional approaches working together. And I see these regional and disaggregated systems finding a commonality and ability to trade through global markets. And the global markets are through Kyoto or a Kyoto-like process.

At what level should we aim to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions and will we succeed?

I personally subscribe to the most recent evidence in the scientific community. We need a 60-80% reduction in current emissions. Will we succeed - yes? Will we succeed before we have huge damages? At the moment I'm pessimistic that we'll get the whole way there, which to me says we really have to start working on some adaptive capacity.

The views presented in the Viewpoint Series are not necessarily representative of the views of The Climate Group.

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