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State Department Briefing on Global Climate Change and Clean Air Initiative, February 2012

Published February 16, 2012

A senior Department of State official gave this telephone briefing on February 16, 2012 regarding an upcoming coalition on climate change and clean air.

MODERATOR:Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining the call. We have with us today, [Senior Administration Official]. The ground rules today is that this call is an embargoed, on background call. And what that means is from here on out our speaker will be referred to as Senior Administration Official. All of the content of this call is embargoed until our announcement is made tomorrow at approximately 9:30 a.m. So without further ado, I'm going to turn it over to our Senior Administration Official. Go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, [Moderator]. Hello to everybody on the call. I'm going to make a few remarks at the top, and then happy to take questions.

Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton is going to be announcing a new coalition that's dedicated to taking concrete action to reduce pollutants that are sometimes referred to as short-lived climate pollutants. She will be joined by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, as well as ministers from Bangladesh, Canada, Mexico, and Sweden, and the U.S. – the ambassador to the U.S. from Ghana. So those are the five other founding partners, and then, in addition, the head of UNEP, the UN Environment Program. UNEP's going to be acting as the secretariat for this coalition.

The focus is on reducing methane, black carbon, and HFCs – hydrofluorocarbons, known as HFCs. They're short-lived pollutants and they, together, account for more than a third of current global warming, so they have a much larger impact than people generally recognize. UNEP has put out some very good reports in the past year or so – most recent one was at the end of 2011. And in that one, they listed and discussed a set of 16 major actions that could be taken either on black carbon or methane, which could have quite striking effects with respect to global warming. If we could implement those actions, you could slow global warming by something like a half degree Celsius by 2050. And since – to put that in context, the global goal is – that's been expressed in the climate negotiations is (inaudible) whole global warning to two degrees Celsius by 2050. So that if you could take actions that could reduce – slow global warming by half a degree, that'd be a big deal.

UNEP also projects that taking these actions could prevent at least 2.5 million deaths annually from – I think they're talking about outdoor, but there's actually both outdoor and indoor pollution effect – and avoid at least 30 million, and possibly a lot more than that, tons of lost crop production. So, in other words, there's a big climate impact, but there are very powerful co-benefits, most strikingly in health, but also in agriculture. And in addition, if you capture methane instead of venting it, which means just let it go altogether or flaring it, which is to burn it, you capture an energy source that can be used.

The coalition is going to be aimed at action, at attracting high-level political support, mobilizing resources, catalyzing and helping to drive the implementation of – first I guess the development first, and then the implementation of national action plans, and broadly raising public awareness about the impact of action in these areas.

It's also interesting that there's a significant intellectual foundation for – in all of these areas. Again, I've referenced the UNEP reports, by no means the only ones. But in addition to an awareness of the sciences and an awareness of what to do and also an awareness of the cost – and fully half of the actions that UNEP identifies are in the low-cost category. Some of them are no-cost, negative-cost, even. You can recoup money over the life of a given action.

There are already discreet activities with respect to some of these agents that exist. And we're not seeking to reinvent the wheel or to replace those. There is, for example, a very, I think, dynamic effort going on with respect to cookstoves worldwide under the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which Secretary Clinton announced at the Clinton Global Initiative in the fall of 2010. That's a very, I think, a good and effective effort. The U.S. Government, by the way, puts $10 million a year into that effort.

So we – so this new coalition is not going to do anything to, in any sense, replace that effort on cookstoves, although it can and I expect would try to bolster it and put the spotlight on it and highlight it. There's also – there's an existing Global Methane Initiative, which is run out of EPA and funded by EPA and State. That's also a good effort. It has over 40 international partners. There are hundreds of projects that it does worldwide. It is a project-by-project based effort, and it gets good reductions, but in the scheme of things, there is a great, great, great deal more to be done.

We will be reaching out to other countries quite rapidly. There are a number of countries we have already heard from that are – that have expressed interest, and I fully anticipate that this small initial group of six will expand quickly. We are starting with about $15 million of funding to get it – to get this effort up and running. Twelve of that will come from the U.S. over two years and three from Canada, and there will be, I am sure, also some funding coming from Sweden, although they are not at a phase of their budget process where they have been able to put an exact number down, but they certainly will be contributing, as will new partners and others.

We will be, inevitably, at the outset spending a fair amount of focus that is organizational and operational. Getting the venue – UNEP will be acting as – not just in an immediate sense but on a permanent basis, UNEP will be acting as the secretariat of this new coalition, so essentially the day-to-day management. UNEP, in consultation with country partners, will be developing an annual work plan, an annual budget, managing the trust fund that will hold resources, organizing and convening meetings and workshops and so forth. So UNEP will have an important role.

And I guess that's – why don't I stop there so I can open the floor to questions. But that's kind of it in a nutshell, and again, we are very much at the front-end of this. We will be developing priorities and goals and so forth as we go forward. But the name of the game is to get up and running and start defining and taking action that can reduce these pollutants.


MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. Operator, if we can go ahead and take our first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. You will be prompted to record your name. Press *1 to ask your question. One moment for the first question.

Our first question comes from Margo McDermott. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. I'm with CBC television in Ottawa, Canada, and I'm just trying to get a handle on once this initiative is up and running, what is it actually – how is it actually going to tackle the issue of black carbon and methane? I mean, what will it actually be doing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there are – again, there are a whole set of actions that have been identified in reports and studies. Methane comes from a whole – just as an example, methane comes from a variety of different sources. It comes from landfills, it comes from the – from coalmines, from the oil and natural gas businesses, and from agriculture, from flooded rice patties, and in various ways that I won't elaborate on from cows. And so there – we know where it comes from.

There has been – I think there's been a lot of work done on actions that could reduce the leakage from gas pipelines, that could recover gas that is typically vented in connection with gas production, and capture gas from municipal landfills and the like with respect to black carbon. Their sources include things like cookstoves, that we were talking about, old and out-of-date brick kilns in industrial settings, from diesel – from dirty diesel vehicles, buses and trucks, and even cars, from burning of biomass.

So there are a number of places where we know the substances – where we know where the problems are; we know what, in essence, what kind of solutions are possible. So I think it's going to be a matter of – first of all, it will certainly be a matter of working these things out as we go.

But I would anticipate that there will be efforts to work with countries to develop national action plans, to provide assistance in developing those plans, and capacity building and carrying the plans out, some financing where needed and where possible. So I think there will be a whole set of actions.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Valerie Volcovici. And please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Valerie from Reuters. I just was wondering if you could explain a bit more about how this will help certain countries implement national action plans and how this initiative will influence the UN negotiations and, I guess, the contributions of the countries involved.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Thank you very much for the question. Well, I think that it will – on the national action plan question, I think that – look, this is a coalition of countries who are going to be interested and engaged and desirous of taking action in these areas and we hope that it will grow to encompass certainly the big players. There may be – in that group, I think there will be countries where the national action plans are plans that can be developed within country. There will be other countries that will be more in need of technical assistance, and I would think that that would be – that providing that kind of assistance would be one of the ways that this coalition will be able to be helpful. And I think that there's – I mean, again, we're very much at the front end.

There are, I think it is – it will be important to ramp up the level of funding that is associated with this effort. We have, I think, quite a good amount of funding to – as a start-up matter, to get the thing up and running. But we – I would certainly like to see that funding grow quite significantly and ramp up quite significantly in reasonably short order so that there is more capacity to try to provide some additional marginal funding that can make the difference between country X, Y, Z being able to move forward on a given action.

With respect to the UN, I don't – the UN negotiations will go forward in their own way, I think, quite independent of this effort. And this effort will go forward quite independent of the UN negotiations. I think that there is an overlap in one sense, and it's not an overlap that is in any – that's in any kind of operational – that has any kind of operational connotation to it. But rather, that there is a great deal of interest and focus in the UN negotiation on efforts to increase what, in that setting, is referred to as ambition, which is to say increasing the level of action that can be taken to reduce greenhouse gases and to reduce global warming. And I think that the kind of coalition that we're talking about here has the potential to do that outside of the negotiation process, but whether it's inside or outside, the players in the negotiation process will be, I think, quite pleased if there are efforts that can have a kind of salutary effect with regard to that issue of ambition.

I might make one other comment. I guess it wasn't really directly your – to your question, but it just popped in my head, so I will mention it – I'm not sure that I did before – which is that action on this terrain, as distinguished from what goes on with regard to reducing CO2 – which, after all, is still the main event – we understand that – but action with respect to these agents can have, will have, in many cases, a local or regional impact, so that if you're improving air quality and improving – and by doing that, saving lives, improving health care, reducing the – or increasing agricultural productivity, those are all things that happen locally and regionally, as opposed to just globally, so it's easier for people to kind of see, and in some sense both see and feel.

MODERATOR: Operator, we're ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: All right. Thank you, sir. Our next question comes from Bob Semple. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: New York Times. [Senior Administration Official], this is Bob. What --


QUESTION: Question about the chemistry here, which I don't understand. And I don't mean to ask something that's unnecessarily complicated, but I'm given to understand that for this sort of program to work, a program dealing with short-lived pollutants to really work, we also need to reduce the more familiar C02 emissions at the same time. Is that true or can this operate independently and successfully of a C02 reduction program?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, once – as soon as you said the word "chemistry," I knew you were going to be out of my depth, but let me – (laughter) – answer you as best as I can, and if there's actually a more technical element to this question, [name withheld] will find the right person to give you an answer. But my – look, my understanding is that there is nothing – let me at least try to take your question on on the chemistry terms in which it was asked. I don't think there's anything chemically necessary about C02 reductions in order for reductions in methane, black carbon, or HFCs to be meaningful with respect to either global warming or any of the other impacts like healthcare and so forth.

That – so that's at the level of the sort of the chemistry of the equation, as best as I would understand it. It is absolutely true that you cannot tackle the global warming problem through this avenue and then forget about C02. I mean, that would be crazy, and C02 is still by far the most important determinant of global warming. It's probably 60 or 65 percent of the total problem. And again, I don't – I'm not absolutely certain about those numbers, but it is approximately that. And it lasts in the atmosphere a very long time, a hundred or hundreds of years. So you can't do this without fixing – you can't do this, meaning tackle climate change, without tackling C02. But you could have a very important positive impact by tackling these shorter-term agents.

And just to give you – to sort of make this more graphic, perhaps, if you think about the two degree goal and you worry about are we going to be past two degrees by 2050, and you think about action that could potentially shave enough off of that – of warming, slow it down enough so that let's say just notionally – and I – these numbers, I'm just making these numbers up, but just notionally, you would have till 2070 rather than 2050 to hit a trip wire on account of C02. Well, that could be quite important, to give you more time to make the kind of technological breakthroughs and advancements that we need on the C02 front.

QUESTION: All right, thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Lisa Friedman. Please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi. Lisa Friedman from ClimateWire. Thanks, [Senior Administration Official], for doing this. Hi.


QUESTION: So, I'm wondering, is there a specific goal – a numbers goal of this coalition, we want to reduce emissions or reduce these substances in the atmosphere X percent by X year? And going back to what you were saying about ambition regarding the UN process, can you talk about timing? To what extent is this an attempt to maybe fill a void? I mean, even the latest agreement that was reached in Durban calls for a – discussions towards an agreement that will happen by 2020. To what extent is this an attempt to make sure that these next 10 years are not lost years in addressing climate change?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the questions. Let me try to give you an answer on both of those. On the question of goals, I think that this is something that we are going to be developing a little bit further as we go. I mean, I think what is certainly true is we are aware of the numbers, the quantitative expression of what is doable, and indeed what is doable even at low cost, as put forward in the UNEP report, and NASA's done a similar assessment of potential action, and so forth. And again, the – in the UNEP work, the – UNEP – the UNEPassessment suggests that if you could carry out those actions – and obviously, that's a big if; you're never going to be able to do everything – but if you can move in that direction, you could reduce methane by about – I think the UNEP report says 38 percent below business as usual by 2030, and there's a slightly different metric on black carbon, but you could reduce black carbon – I think if you carried out these actions, you could – I think what they say is you could do something like 77 percent of the black carbon, the plausible black carbon reductions.

Those aren't our goals per se. I mean, we're not going to have a goal that says – that assumes you could do everything. But on the other hand, we're going to want to take action that moves us as much as possible in those directions. And I think that in the course of the next months, we will probably be developing something that's more actually – a more actual target goal than I'm giving you right now. But that – those kinds of numbers, at least, kind of frame the ballpark that we're in.

With respect to your second question, I wouldn't put it that way, that – are we filling a void, because we – I started focusing on the idea of trying to pull together a coalition like this that knitted all of these pollutants together into a single effort back in the late summer of 2010, so – and started talking with Mexico and Canada and Sweden, who was also interested, and then Bangladesh and so forth. And so I – the – certainly, our interest in this goes back way before there was a Durban result that came out quite the way it did. So that's one thing.

A second thing is that we don't – and I sort of keep saying this over and over, but I guess I'll say it again – I said it a bunch of times in Durban and I've said it since – we don't regard the time between now and 2020 as some kind of a lost period. I mean, what we have are political agreements – fine, they're not legally binding – but they're political decisions reached under the – in the construct of decisions to the legally binding framework convention, under which countries are all – well, not all, but a great number of them, and certainly all the big ones – have made pledges that I think people are quite serious about, and that people are going to be trying to carry out in a whole variety of ways, not to mention setting up the transparency system and the green fund and the technology center, and trying to mobilize large-scale funding that ramps up to the commitments made in the agreements and all the rest.

So there's going to be a ton of work, including work in reducing emissions and mitigating emissions right now in 2012, and '13, and '14, and '15, and so forth, at the same time as negotiations get going toward that agreement that would pick up in the period starting in the 20 – in – from 2020 on. So I don't see this as, like, trying to fill a void, like in the sense that there's, like, some kind of dead zone from now to 2020. But on the other hand, I think this kind of thing could help reduce emissions more than they would be reduced otherwise, and that's a good thing.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Chris Holly, and please state your affiliation.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official], it's Chris Holly from The Energy Daily.


QUESTION: I'm trying to figure out how to couch this question. HFCs have been controversial in the broader global negotiations for reasons I can't claim to be – to fully comprehend. Methane here in the U.S. is a very controversial issue because it seems like every other week, studies come out that make wildly disparate claims about the natural gas industry's contribution to global warming through venting of methane. We have a study that says it's not that bad, we have a study two weeks later that says it's twice what we thought it was.


QUESTION: Twice what we thought it was. There's – there was a study that came out just last week that said emissions from western production are twice what government and industry estimates had stated. So how are you going to resolve the political challenges associated with these three pollutants?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, a very good question, Chris. Let me take them one at a time.

I think that HFCs – so HFCs are substances that were developed in order to replace the ozone-depleting substances that were punching a hole in the stratospheric ozone. And that's part of the Montreal Protocol. So then it turns out that HFCs, they do – they are better with respect to stratospheric ozone, but they're highly, highly potent as global warming agents, and although they are a small part of the total problem now, left uncontrolled, they could become a very large part of the problem 30 or 40 years down the road, and they keep rapidly growing.

So there are different ways to go at them – at the HFC problem. One way – and we have promoted this aggressively independent of this coalition – is to suggest that there ought to be an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to essentially lead to the phasing out – not the elimination right away – but the phasing out over time and gradual phasing out of these substances. If I have the numbers right, I think that there were 108 countries who signed on to a resolution at the last big Montreal Protocol meeting that was sponsored by – and partly by the United States, but also by many countries large and small.

So far, China and India have been quite resistant to that particular way of dealing with the HFC problem. I think this is the kind of thing that is going to continue to evolve and develop over time; that is to say that particular approach which we think would be a good approach. But there's other approaches. You can have a positive impact on HFCs, on developing substitutes that are affordable and effective to HFCs outside of the construct of the Montreal Protocol.

So we'll just have to see about those things. We have not made it any kind of a condition for being part of this coalition that you've got to like or support the – that Montreal Protocol amendment that we favor. That's one way of going about things. And there's a – it's a whole another conversation which we could have separately, but I don't want to take up everybody's time on it right now, as to why China and India have opposed those things, but there are pretty specific answers to that question.

With respect to methane and the issue of shale gas and fracking and different studies and reports about how much methane is leaked, given off, in that process, I think that – I have no special knowledge about that. I think that it's – I think study and understanding of exactly what the leakage is is enormously important because it has a big impact on the degree to which that kind of gas production is a big benefit on the global warming side. Obviously, there's big benefits to natural gas production independent of global warming, but I'm just focused on the global warming issue itself.

But my sense is that even to the extent that one discovered that there was a larger amount of leakage than might have been thought – and again, I am – I claim to no special expertise in this area. But my sense is that there either are or will be technological fixes to that which actually would feed right into what we're talking about here, because if there's too much methane being released, vented from that process, and you could capture that – either better mechanical processes so less gets vented and/or capturing the stuff that does get vented – then again you're doing exactly what part of this initiative is designed to do. So I think it's a very complicated issue and an important one, but I think it's not at all inconsistent with what we're doing. It's actually – the fact that there's that problem is – only underscores the need to do the sorts of things we're talking about here.

STAFF: Hey [Moderator], we don't have – we're out of time. We unfortunately don't have any time for any more questions.

MODERATOR: That's okay. Operator, we'll have to wrap the call. Thank you very much.

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