The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I don’t see the evidence yet’ of stronger climate pledges, Kerry says

President Biden’s top climate envoy on the need to act more urgently, the promise of innovation and why protecting the oceans matters

U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry said the Nov. 13 agreement was just the first step in phasing out the world's use of the fossil fuel. (Video: Reuters)

The world looks different months after leaders vowed in November at a U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, to redouble their efforts to slow Earth’s warming. The coronavirus pandemic has dragged on, upending individual livelihoods and entire economies. Russia has waged war on Ukraine, a humanitarian tragedy that also laid bare the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels.

In an interview on the eve of Earth Day, the Biden administration’s special presidential envoy for climate, John F. Kerry, spoke about how the world has so far failed to live up to its climate goals, why he remains optimistic the White House can still take meaningful action to cut greenhouse emissions and why protecting the oceans remains a critical part of safeguarding the planet.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:

The Washington Post: You recently returned from the Our Ocean Conference, which this year was held in Palau, a small island nation. This is an annual gathering you helped start in 2014 while at the State Department. I noticed that once again there was a list of ocean-related commitments made. What were some of the most significant ones? And in what ways could they have near-term impact on places like Palau, which, as you know, is really on the front lines of climate change?

John F. Kerry: Well, there were significant commitments made by the United States and others to help with the adaptation and building of resilience. There are a lot of things that can make a difference to the island states, not the least of which is just early-warning systems and some very basic adaptation efforts like sea walls and barriers, stronger buildings and so forth.

In addition, there was a lot of major commitments made for marine protected areas — and for greater enforcement of marine protected areas. There were very significant initiatives on plastic. I think it’s fair to say that the 70-plus nations that came together … all left really committed to achieving a plastics treaty in the course of this year.

Over the years, since 2014, when we did the first one, there have been over $100 billion worth of commitments made, over 1,800 total commitments. And you could trace them and you’ll see these are commitments which the vast majority of people are following up on and implementing.

WP: Speaking of promises, we’re several months past when there were a lot of commitments also at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow aimed at keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels. And I wanted to go back to a couple of those. At the top of that list was this issue of, frankly, nations like Palau and other developing nations and small island nations that really pushed wealthy nations like the United States and others to make good on the promises for more financing to deal with climate change, and to build greener economies. Are you confident that’s going to happen? And given our own democratic system where Congress hasn’t necessarily funded this in the way you would like, what do you say to those nations and whether they should feel confident in our promises?

Climate pledges are improving — but still leave world on a disastrous path

Kerry: I mean, the president’s promise was by 2024, he will have $11.4 billion [annually for international climate finance]. We’re about a billion shy of what our target was for this year. And as of this year, at the end of [2022, developed nations are] probably at $96 billion [of the $100 billion promised annually]. I still think we have time to try to get to $100 billion.

The problem we have is that Donald Trump didn’t put any money in it. Cut the whole program. So the baseline that we began with, it’s a low baseline. And getting very significant increases in the budget [is hard] — ask anybody in any department in the country, with the exception of the Defense Department.

So I think the president is doing his part. But the truth is, that’s not going to make all the difference. The difference between $96 billion and $100 billion is not the difference between our success and no success, and we need to be very clear about that. We, the United States, helped lead with our diplomacy. We reached out to all the critical countries. Twenty countries equal 80 percent of all emissions. Forty-eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa are the equivalent of 0.55 percentage points of emissions.

So where do you think you have to go to get the job done? You’ve got to go to those developed countries that are responsible for most of the emissions. The fact is that the United States helped bring Canada and Japan and South Korea and South Africa and Indonesia and others to the table to raise their targets and to be ready to try to achieve the goal of keeping 1.5 degrees [Celsius] alive.

Part of the mission here is to focus in on China and Russia and India and Indonesia and South Africa and Brazil and Mexico, and countries where [emissions] are significant. We’ve got to get more countries on the 1.5C track. That’s the mission.

WP: Another one of the big agreements to come out of Glasgow was that leaders agreed to revisit their national climate targets this year instead of waiting, say, five years. Do you see evidence that that’s happening, or will happen, ahead of COP27, the U.N. climate conference, in Egypt this fall?

Kerry: I don’t see the evidence yet. I don’t see the evidence that that is happening, and I also don’t see the evidence that they are reducing [emissions] significantly enough to keep us on a track where we can achieve it. So I think we have a huge lift.

And obviously, what’s happened in Ukraine has not helped to concentrate people on reducing [emissions]. It’s concentrated people on trying to find substitutes for Russian gas and to meet higher levels of production because of low supply. But it obviously does interrupt the momentum that we had created coming out of Glasgow.

WP: Would you include the United States in the countries that need to revisit a stronger national pledge, or are we in a good place?

Kerry: I think our [national pledge] is strong enough for the 2030 target, but I think we need to review how we’re going to get there more. I think there’s got to be some taking stock right now of what’s happened to us in terms of the Ukraine situation, the gas demand, the production levels — and we’ve got to take a hard look at it, because it’s definitely having an effect.

There are other problems, too. There’s a huge backup in solar panels, which is distorting the solar market significantly. We’ve got to deal with that. So there are definitely things that we, the United States, have to do. But we have a legitimate plan to reduce our emissions by 50 to 52 percent [by 2030], and we still have the time to do it. But we’ve got to get on track.

WP: I understand your lane is international climate policy, and so you understandably steer clear of talking about the domestic stuff. But as the president’s climate agenda faces these hurdles in Congress, and there’s the war in Ukraine, and rising gas prices force these hard choices, to what extent do you worry — internationally — that the U.S. is going to live up to its climate promises?

Kerry: President Biden remains deeply committed to try to get this done. And while Build Back Better [legislation], obviously, is not going to be the vehicle — because that’s been made clear by members of the Congress — something else could still be. I know that the administration is still working on that, and there is time, obviously, to be able to get something done on climate.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has said publicly that he supports an appropriate energy [and] climate bill. And obviously, our hope is that something can happen in the next days. But there’s no debate over the fact that our diplomacy will be affected by what we do or don’t decide to do in that regard. And I know the president is very focused on that and cares about it very deeply.

WP: It makes me think of the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which really lay out in detail how climate change is already wreaking havoc all over the world, and the herculean efforts that it’s going to take to meet the Paris goals. I recall U.N. Secretary General António Guterres saying some government and business leaders are saying one thing and doing another.

Obviously, the warnings from scientists are not new, and there are always other crises. What do you think it’s going to actually take for sufficient action to happen on climate? And where do you look for the optimism in that?

Kerry: I think that there are reasons to be optimistic not withstanding how difficult it is, and I’m not being Pollyannaish about it.

The private sector stepped up in Glasgow in a way that it has never been so present at any COP ever. We created something called the First Movers Coalition, which is 36 major companies in the world. Boeing and Delta and United have committed to sustainable aviation fuel, and some users like Apple and Salesforce have committed that they’re going to buy [it], even though there is a premium for it. That will help create the market for it.

Ford and General Motors have both spent hundreds of millions of dollars retooling their factories. They are going to make only electric cars by 2035, and 50 percent of the cars sold in America by 2030 will be electric. That’s happening because of the marketplace.

In addition to that, there really are some fascinating things happening within technology. And I believe some of those technologies — if they can be brought to scale, and I think they will be — you’re going to have a turnaround in the marketplace.

So I anticipate that whether it’s green hydrogen or long-term battery storage or direct air carbon capture or utilizing CO2 to make some kind of product with it, there is just an enormous amount happening, and they’re going to be breakthroughs. I don’t want to sit there and say you can just count on the breakthrough. But if we were deploying much more renewable right now, using these next five, eight, 10 years to take the easy reductions that are available to us with current technology, during that time other things are going to happen that are going to lead us forward.

I really believe we can make some progress. But we have to do more to do the things we know how to do with the current technology. We have to be doing things that are smart to reduce emissions in order to stay on the curved line of 45 percent minimum reduction [in emissions] over the course of the next eight years. That’s what the scientists say we need to achieve.

I’m optimistic that if we can wrap our hands around the politics and get something done, we can get there.

WP: There has been reporting that Gina McCarthy, the White House climate adviser, will soon depart that post. And it just raises the question of you and what your plans are to stay in this job.

Kerry: I haven’t made any other plans at this point in time other than to keep working away. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see where we are. I’m not going anywhere right now.

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