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Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Jonathan Pershing joined the Biden team on Day 1 after previously serving as the State Department special envoy for climate under President Barack Obama. He is one of two Kerry deputies along with Sue Biniaz, a veteran career State Department climate official.
The Africa Report caught up with Pershing virtually for an exclusive interview from South Africa, where he is on the first leg of a five-nation trip across the continent for meetings with government officials, civil society, the private sector and representatives of other donor countries and financial institutions. The goal is to listen to an array of African voices and “raise global climate ambition” ahead of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this fall.
“This is more a chance to listen to people,” Pershing says. “It’s a tour to touch base, to see where people are, to see what we can bring to the table. [And] it’s really a chance to have a much larger framework than just one country.”
The tour begins in South Africa, where officials from the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany are meeting this week to try to secure an agreement to begin closing the country’s coal plants, which generate more than half of the country’s power. The world’s 12th largest greenhouse gas emitter, South Africa last week announced a lower greenhouse gas emission target, which Pershing said puts it on the way to reaching the UN target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“This is a country that has enormous potential,” Pershing says. “Some difficult issues that it’s grappling with, not least around its coal, but also making huge contributions.”
Pershing will then travel to Namibia, which is suffering from draught and launching multiple renewable energy projects; the two Congos, which are struggling to preserve the world’s second-largest rainforest in the Congo basin; and Senegal, a regional leader in agroecology. He will also have virtual meetings with the African Union and Kenya.
Pershing describes a three-pronged approach to his trip:
- Building trust for the long-term;
- Looking for ways to help;
- Working with other donors to make it happen.
“While [Africa’s] emissions today are relatively low, in the future they will grow. And we’re looking to solve a long-term problem, and without confidence you really can’t do that. You want to be up-front, you want to be participatory, you want to bring people to the table.”
“There’s an awful lot of people here who are at risk, from everything from draughts to floods to sea-level rise. And there need to be things that we as a global community try to do to help them manage those risks and minimise the impact. So there’s a second, larger purpose for coming.”
“All of that then comes to a third piece, which really speaks to some of the finance question, because this is also not a place that actually has a lot of excess capacity. How can we, as a donor country, we as a partner with many other wealthy nations, what can we bring to that table to help think about that financing?”
Green energy transition
Pershing acknowledges that a new funding focus on renewable energy has upset some African countries that want to exploit their oil and gas resources. But he said modern technologies now offer alternatives.
“We actually have new technologies that no longer require carbon-intensive activity to get to the outcomes that you want. And at the moment what we are seeing is increasingly, zero-carbon power is the same price – and in most cases, a lower price – than high-carbon power.
“The second thing is, it’s not just the power. In order to develop that, I need to put a whole lot of infrastructure in place. And if I haven’t yet built the infrastructure, I can reprogramme it. And the example people always use – it’s not perfect, but it’s quite interesting – is telecommunications: Africa never installed a network of wires the way the US did, the way Europe did. It went to cell phones directly. So what’s the equivalent of that in the context of [energy]? Maybe it’s distributed renewable generation, which doesn’t require pipelines, doesn’t require huge electric transmission lines.”
The climate problem is not going to limit itself so somebody else’s border – it’s going to be around the world.
“The last thing is, as you look at the alternatives, you will build differently. So how do I think about the communities that might prosper under this new world? And how do I worry about those that have existing capacity that’s going to retire – is there a retraining programme, is there an economic development programme? And then the new institutions that you want to build, the new areas that want to be grown, whether there’s solar capacity or wind capacity or hydro capacity you might tap. So that whole set of things is also an economic engine – it’s not narrowly a choice between, I have to get it by coal or I have no power.”
Through initiatives such as Power Africa, he says, the US is working with private partners and increasingly other governments from developed nations to help develop alternative energy sources.
“Those are the kinds of things that we can bring to the table to make this difficult transition not only easier, but profitable.”
A two-way street
At the same time, Pershing says, the United States has to be ready to listen.
“Part of the reason you visit is to try to avoid misunderstandings,” he says.
He adds that African resources and know-how are both crucial to successfully tackling climate change.
If we treat it as a one-way street – we tell you how to do it – they won’t accept that. And they shouldn’t. And we won’t get the benefit that we need from the engagement.
“I want to be very clear: It is a two-way street. There are enormous things the US will get from a successful African continent. A great number of the critical minerals that we need to power this new world of solar and wind and high-tech will come from this continent. And we want to partner in developing them.”
“And there’s enormous groundswells of new people coming in with ideas and ways to think about everything from equity to the management of forest land that we can benefit from. So I see this really as a two-way benefit, on both sides we’re going to win, and if we win we also can solve the climate problem. If we treat it as a one-way street – we tell you how to do it – they won’t accept that. And they shouldn’t. And we won’t get the benefit that we need from the engagement.”
Likewise President Biden’s promise last week to double annual US aid to vulnerable nations dealing with climate change to $11.4bn should be seen as a contribution to global well-being.
“We think Congress will go along,” Pershing says. “We should be clear about the scale. It’s significant, but in the context of regular expenditures on the US government side, these are relatively [small]. And the benefit to the American citizen is quite high. The climate problem is not going to limit itself so somebody else’s border – it’s going to be around the world. And you see it in huge measure in the United States” from fires in California, to flooding in New York to drought across the American West.
“We want to avoid making it that much worse, which means the world has to change,” he said.
He added that the US is ready to discuss climate change in the context of the UN Security Council.
“We see real connections between this climate agenda and the security agenda,” he said. “If you look at the climate change impacts in parts of the world that are under stress, those impacts exacerbate the stress and drive further conflict. So if I’m already food-constrained and I then have draughts, where do those people go? And it’s not 10 or 100 people in a village – it could be entirely swaths of the population. And they move into cities, and the cities become volatile. Or they move out of the country and across borders, into refugee camps.”
He says Kerry is eager to visit the continent – he already stopped by Egypt earlier this years – but has been tied up with preparatory meetings for COP26. With the risks and speed of climate change clearer than ever, Pershing says, the goal for this year’s summit is to fire up global ambition six years after the Paris agreement of 2015.
“This next decade matters enormously,” he says. ‘And we want political statements to come from the COP to make that clear.”
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