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Published on December 7th, 2016 | by Elemental Excelerator


Letter From Marrakech, Lessons From Dr. Jonathan Pershing

December 7th, 2016 by  

By Melissa Uhl, Policy & Partnerships at Energy Excelerator

After 4 legs and 30 hours of travel, a third of the Energy Excelerator team arrived in Marrakech, Morocco, for meetings in conjunction with the United Nations COP22 conference.

Amongst many noteworthy conversations, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, lead climate negotiator for the US, shared 5 key perspectives on the Conference of the Parties (“COP”) process and his focus for the next 5 years.

(1) He said that at this COP, we moved from a negotiation framework to an implementation framework, which means we are now engaging different groups and cohorts in the process  —  civil society, faith groups, business, press, and entrepreneurs. It is up to each country to put together an action plan, and Pershing noted that these plans must be concrete enough to act on tomorrow. He said that although we have many of the technologies and solutions necessary to be successful, these must be scaled dramatically and moved to market more quickly. We need to do with new solutions in general what we have done already with solar, which is now at a record low 2.4 cents/kWh in the UAE.

(2) Pershing said that the biggest obstacle we are facing is inertia. This, coupled with how long it takes new technology to get to market, makes transitioning to low-carbon economies particularly hard. We are not filling a void, but are instead replacing old technologies with new ones, which takes time  —  especially when we are comfortable with the status quo, and can flip the switch to turn a light on or drive down the road to fill up our car with gas. Changing habits is difficult.

(3) Pershing also noted that cities are the new unit of progress. Focusing on the city as a system of interconnected sectors shifts our way of thinking about solutions out of sector-silos and into systems. Linking the transportation system, water system, sewage system, agricultural system, and energy system is not a revolutionary idea, but the shift changes the perspective and the business models and ROI equations.

(4) The US hosted the first climate negotiation round in 1990 under a Republican president, and all measures passed without a glitch. He said all of this happens in cycles and climate policy can be bipartisan if framed correctly. This election was a major missed opportunity to frame climate change as an economic opportunity, instead of a problem. We failed to craft a vision for coal mining and other fossil fuel-dependent communities and describe how the transition will happen … and how it can be economically beneficial.

This reminded us of another illuminating speaker  —  William McDonough, architect, designer, and innovator, who shared his new language around carbon with us. McDonough argues that we need to shift our framing and thus relationship with carbon, from viewing it as an atmospheric toxin to a misplaced resource. He wants to use a new language around climate that reflects the quality of the carbon itself. He points out that any element in the wrong amount and place is a toxin, and that this is the state of carbon in our terrestrial and atmospheric system. Instead of always being a toxin, McDonough wants us to view carbon as not only fugitive (escaped to the wrong place), but also durable (recycling within our man-made systems), and living (deposited back in the natural carbon cycle  —  in trees, soils, oceans).

(5) Looking to the future, Pershing said that what we really need is action. Each country will report back in 5 years on the progress we have made internally on reaching our individual goals. He encouraged people to keep with a positive and moral frame and to do what energizes them. Those of us in the business of climate, clean energy, and sustainable technology do not need to change our course, but need to grow and scale our course. We need to be bigger and bolder. Anything and everything helps, he said. But to be clear, this is not a problem we are going to fix before we’re in a world of hurt  —  it’s moving way too fast.

And with that, we returned to Hawaii, but not before debuting our newest EEx video. Its message is well aligned with Pershing’s advice: it is up to people to transform a system and a place. Paris set up the goals and metrics; Marrakech is the call to the rest of us, the people, for action.


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Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, we find 12-15 companies that best fit our mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact people’s lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation.

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