By Peter Harrison 2 September 2016

The US envoy for climate change has told Al Arabiya English he’s confident the Paris Agreement will be honored.

The Paris agreement obligates states to curb emissions that contribute to climate change. It takes effect once at least 55 nations accounting for at least 55% of global emissions ratify it. So far only 23 countries, accounting for 1.08% of emissions, have done so.

One of the main aims of the agreement is to lower the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C. Such an achievement would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Global temperatures in 2016 reached record highs for the 15th straight month in July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States reported. July was the hottest month since global records began in 1880.

Dr Jonathan Pershing, special envoy for climate change in the US, admits the commitments to the Paris Agreement are far from being implemented. At the time of the agreement in December the Saudis were not onboard, along with Germany, Russia and a few other nations.

But in July that changed and both Germany and Saudi announced their intention to ratify the agreement within the timeframe.

Former chair of Saudi Aramco Al Falih said the oil-rich kingdom could formally join ahead of November’s annual UN climate summit in Morocco.

He said at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, an annual gathering of envoys in Berlin, in July: “We in Saudi Arabia are fully committed to the COP21 deal.”

‘Optimistic’ over Saudi commitment

Pershing told Al Arabiya English: “I am very confident that these countries will come on board. I think it is not a question of whether, but when… I think in the case of Saudi I am frankly optimistic they will do this by the end of the year.”

It is well documented that the UAE had the world’s highest per capita environmental carbon footprint.

The UAE gets most of its water from the sea. Desalination has been used to make this water safe for consumption. In 2013 it was reported that power and desalination plants contributed to nearly a third of the country’s greenhouse emissions.

But the Gulf region has committed itself to a 17% reduction in electricity used for the process. The nation’s rulers have been working to turn the problem round, investing heavily in more sustainable energy sources – including solar power.
UAE driven by ‘real opportunity’

“The investment around renewable energy in the UAE is driven by real opportunity,” Pershing told Al Arabiya English. “If you look at the price they are paying for solar it is less than 3 cents. That’s much lower cost than gas, it’s lower cost than coal. It’s lower cost than any of the alternatives. So here’s an economic rationale that has enormous climate benefits. To me that’s a big shift in the global community.”

But he said there was a need for a diverse range of energy supplies to meet increase in energy demands. Something he said was being tackled head on by the Gulf nations – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Pershing said: “If I look at nuclear power – clearly in some places it’s a very attractive option. But you’re looking at 10-20% [of energy requirements]. So you’re not looking at an answer, you have to have a combination of every one of these. So I see solar ultimately being one of the larger pieces, but still only a piece.”

The most notable thing about the Gulf region and its efforts, Pershing added, was the change in mindset. Pershing said: “One of the things I’m struck by is the change in the conversation in the region.”

Of oil rich nations, such as Saudi, he said there was previously a reluctance to embrace green emission reductions, because this came with a reduction in oil demand, which would impact local economies.

Added to this, is an increase domestic demand as the population continues to grow, putting more drain on supplies, which reduces the amount of oil these nations are able to export.

“But if I can change some of that domestic consumption with renewables, I can build renewables at less cost and use my oil for export at a higher market value,” Pershing added. “So all of a sudden that is a different kind of a conversation.”

He said: “The UAE is making enormous investments across the board, not only in the power side, but in the transport side. There’s a proposal here now to look at the electrification of vehicles. And put in a vehicle charging grid system, that could enable much more rapid penetration of the new vehicle technology.”
Mindset change

The biggest mindset change, globally he explained, was that there seemed to be a willingness to commit to more long-term planning.

He explained that previously countries were looking at environmental events that weren’t expected until as late as 2050, leading to less concerns. But with more immediate concerns over temperatures and sea levels that view has changed.

“These are ones that appear to be now – not out in some distant future. All of that is shifting the perspective, not just in the region, but globally,” Pershing added.

The Paris Agreement saw a fundamental change in the world, with more countries, than ever before, committing to radical changes. But there are concerns some might not ratify it by the year’s end.

French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday called on people to double their efforts to push countries “to ratify the accord before Marrakesh,” referring to the next round of UN climate talks in November.

Action cheaper than inaction

Pershing on Monday told Al Arabiya English that countries will have weighed up the costs, adding: “The first way to look at this is directly at the incremental cost of acting compared to not acting… Historically it was seen that a zero emitting source was more expensive than an emitting source.”

But now he said, Dubai’s electricity and water authority – DEWA – was looking at providing solar power at a cost of 2.9 cents per unit of energy delivered, compared to five cents for a gas facility.

He added: “So all of a sudden a zero carbon option is cheaper than a carbon option… The price of gas has stayed relatively stable – but these new technologies are now one-tenth of the cost they use to be.”

Pershing said he was more hopeful for the Paris Agreement to be a success in the long run. Unlike earlier attempts to strike a deal – such as the Kyoto Protocol.

“This time it was done differently. There was a collective agreement of what we wanted to see in the world. With complete latitude for countries to agree on their own actions. Countries now assess the capacity based on domestic priorities.”