The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Asia, John Kerry urges bold action on climate to avoid global ‘suicide pact’

Trip through India, United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh is part of a push by the Biden administration for more ambitious climate action

John F. Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Press Information Bureau/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — More than 7,000 miles from Washington, John F. Kerry arrived in yet another major capital to deliver a message and a plea: The United States plans to make a profound push to combat climate change in the months and years ahead, and it needs all the partners it can get.

In an interview here, President Biden’s special envoy for climate said it is a message he has been delivering with “humility for four years that have been wasted.” After the Trump administration aggressively rolled back policies to limit climate change and made the United States the only nation to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, Biden has made reversing those moves a central part of his presidency.

Kerry said that as the dangers posed by climate change become more clear, the urgency of the problem means that countries must work together to confront it, or else face a “mutual suicide pact across the planet.”

The problem remains solvable, but it “depends entirely on the political will,” and the United States under Biden plans to lead by example, he said.

Exactly what that example might look like will take shape later this month, when Biden convenes dozens of world leaders for a virtual Earth Day summit. He is expected to introduce a new, more ambitious plan to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2030 — probably in the neighborhood of 50 percent compared to 2005 levels.

Biden faces ‘moment of truth’ as he weighs key U.S. climate promise

Whether that goal becomes a reality will depend at least in part on what initiatives Congress is willing to fund and what policies future administrations pursue. Still, the moment is aimed at reestablishing American leadership in the fight to limit the Earth’s warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels — a threshold beyond which scientists predict irreversible environmental damage.

That U.S. promise and the policies that underpin it, the administration hopes, will help compel other large-emitting countries to increase their efforts and cement enhanced national pledges ahead of a key United Nations climate conference this fall in Scotland.

That’s why even amid an ongoing pandemic, Kerry has spent significant time before the Earth Day summit visiting leaders who will play critical roles in whether the world can meaningfully alter its trajectory, which scientists agree is woefully inadequate and could lead to deepening climate-related crises in coming decades.

Kerry traveled to Europe last month to meet with allies in London, Brussels and Paris, in hopes of forging a coalition that could push other nations to move more quickly. His trip this week includes stops in India, Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates. He also plans to visit China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, at a later date.

The travel is a way to convey the Biden administration’s sense of urgency about the problem and the president’s determination to renew relationships ahead of the global gathering in Glasgow in November. India is reporting record numbers of coronavirus cases, but Kerry is spending three full days in the country consulting with political leaders, business executives and entrepreneurs.

Meeting people in person allows “greater ease in the give and take,” he said in the interview. It also gives the ability to pull someone aside and “whisper in their ear” something “you don’t want other people necessarily to hear.”

India is a crucial player in the fight to curb global emissions. It is the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and such emissions are expected to grow rapidly as incomes and energy consumption rise in a nation of more than 1.3 billion people.

It is one of few nations on track to meet its commitments under the Paris accord, Kerry noted. The Indian government has set a goal of installing 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030. If India makes progress toward that target, Kerry said, it will automatically pull the country away from some of its dependency on fossil fuels.

India isn’t “using coal because they like coal or they’re oblivious to the impact,” Kerry said. “If they can find a way to finance an alternative, they’ll leap at it.”

Still, like in the United States and virtually every other major economy, change is not happening quickly enough. Climate Action Tracker, an independent group that analyzes what cuts countries have vowed to take and how they are living up to those promises, said India is doing its “fair share,” based on historical responsibility for the problem and its current capabilities.

Countries must ramp up climate pledges by 80 percent to hit key Paris target, study finds

But its efforts, the group said, are “not consistent with the Paris Agreement, and domestic emissions need to peak and start reducing, including with international support.” It added that although the coronavirus pandemic has provided India with a chance to “accelerate a transition away from coal to renewable energy,” there are “no clear signs that India is seizing that opportunity.”

“While no new coal power stations have been built in 2020, the government is encouraging more coal mining and increased coal production which is not consistent with a green recovery,” the group wrote in an analysis, saying India must develop a strategy to phase out coal for power generation before 2040.

Kerry met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week and praised his determination to move India in the right direction. “He’s deeply invested in this,” both as an expression of spiritual and personal values, Kerry said in the interview.

A right-leaning Hindu nationalist leader, Modi has publicly embraced the fight against climate change. The push also aligns with other objectives of his government such as promoting energy independence and reducing air pollution.

At the same time, Modi has a “tough hand to play,” Kerry acknowledged. He must generate jobs for a growing population and modernize India’s infrastructure, all with limited resources. The developed world needs “to help with that.”

Kerry’s trip is part of an attempt “to get all the major emitters on board to do more,” said Ajay Mathur, a former climate negotiator in India and the director general of the International Solar Alliance. Whether that turns into concrete commitments remains to be seen, Mathur said.

On Friday, Kerry will travel to Bangladesh, a densely populated coastal nation where the effects of climate change will be severe. His goal will be to emphasize the “challenge of adaptation and resilience, which often gets left behind, and to highlight vulnerable nations writ large.”