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America and Global Warming: US Wants a 'Legally Binding Climate Agreement'

The United Nations wants a global climate change agreement in place by December. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with the US deputy climate change envoy Jonathan Pershing about the difficulties of reaching such a deal. The US and China, he claims, are making progress.

SPIEGEL: The US and China are responsible for 40 percent of global CO2 emissions. Should the two countries find a solution to global warming between themselves?

With the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen rapidly approaching, the world is trying to agree on what to do about climate change.

With the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen rapidly approaching, the world is trying to agree on what to do about climate change.

Jonathan Pershing: My impression from our talks in Beijing is that China does not want to reduce the global climate talks to US-Chinese talks, to a kind of G-2. Like us, they want this to be part of the UN process. There are tasks we can pursue bilaterally, but ultimately the whole world has to agree on the framework to combat climate change.

SPIEGEL: Did the talks in Beijing produce any tangible outcome?

Pershing: China and the US are finding common ground. We didn't come home with a signed agreement but we understand much better what is important for the Chinese and why. For example, access to green technology is very important for China. Their concern is that the most energy-efficient technologies are still too expensive -- that's a concern we fully share. So we can work together to reduce costs associated with employing these new technologies. In particular, we will work together on carbon capture and storage so that CO2 isn't emitted into the atmosphere but stored in the ground. The US and China now share a great interest in energy efficiency and particularly in car efficiency. That's where we can greatly increase our cooperation.

SPIEGEL: Does China do enough nationally to reduce its emissions?

Pershing: China is very active -- they pursue CO2 reduction aggressively, on a similar scale as the most active countries in the world. In their next five-year-plan they intend to put additional actions into place. But it is not yet clear how much that will mean in terms of CO2 reduction and if it will be enough. China is a rapidly growing economy. Unless they work with us and with others to decouple their economic growth from the emission growth we are in dire straits.

SPIEGEL: But the Chinese don't want to accept legally binding reduction targets for CO2. Does the US still insist on such a commitment?

Pershing: Yes, definitely. We are still asking them to commit to legally binding CO2 reductions as part of a Copenhagen agreement.

SPIEGEL: With only five months left until the Copenhagen summit, do you think such a compromise will be possible?

Pershing: We are working very hard to achieve a good solution. The US remains focused on a legally binding agreement and on concluding that agreement in Copenhagen. We expect all developed nations to commit to comparable reduction targets and we want more countries to belong to the group of industrialized countries than today, for example Korea. Major economies with large total emissions like China should take additional steps, including a quantitative and quantifiable set of actions with a legal requirement to implement those actions.

SPIEGEL: Should there be identical targets for all developing nations?

Pershing: No, those actions should be differentiated. For example we don't expect that Brazil, with a heavy forestry sector, will take the same kind of measures as India, with a small forestry sector. But in both cases there should be legally binding actions that are consistent with a long term trajectory to reduce CO2 emissions adequately. Each of those countries has to have a share of the global effort to reduce emissions.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean for countries like China?

Pershing: It is important that their next five-year-plan is consistent with a long term obligation. If they come up with improvements in energy efficiency, then 20 percent would be an excellent number, a very strong number. Five percent on the other hand would not be consistent with the rate of change you would have to have in China to get to a global effort that stops the damage at a level we can sustain.

SPIEGEL: The leading environmental organizations propose a total CO2 budget for the planet. Is that a good idea?

Pershing: This idea comes out of climate research and it is worth looking at. I don't think that there is an exact amount of CO2 one could determine to be safe. A certain range for a total CO2 budget would be more realistic. But I don't know if this is the most useful framework for a global agreement. I will discuss this with environmental groups and then our administration will analyze it and I hope developing countries will do the same.

SPIEGEL: Why can't the developed world move ahead with CO2 reductions without requiring the developing world to join such a regime?

Pershing: If the US would reduce its emissions to zero, we would only see a delay in global warming of a few years because emissions from developing nations grow so fast.

SPIEGEL: On Wednesday, Japan has offered to reduce its emissions by 8 percent by 2020 relative to 1990 levels. Environmentalists argue that's far too little and a result of the US offering only a 4 percent reduction.

Pershing: The US has a very aggressive target both near term and long term. President Bush wanted US emissions to peak at some stage in the 2020s. Our target is to peak almost immediately and to reduce our emissions on a scale comparable to what the EU is aiming at. Looking at Japan, it's important to note that an 8 percent reduction is their target for domestic action, while the EU target of minus 20 percent allows for half of the reductions to be achieved through projects in developing nations. So one should not underestimate Japan's efforts. If they put new energy technologies on the table and substantial financial support for climate change measures in developing nations, the whole picture changes.

SPIEGEL: Environmentalists are asking President Obama for a commitment to combating climate change similar to the commitment to US-Muslim reconciliation embodied in his recent Cairo speech. Can something like that be expected?

Pershing: President Obama is convinced that climate change is one of the central issues facing the world. He will continue to be very vocal about this and try to persuade as many heads of state as possible to take serious action. He will have an opportunity to do that in Italy in July, where both the G-8 and all major economies meet.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwägerl


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