And Kerry has problems at home, too: It’s still unclear whether Congress will approve President Joe Biden’s climate and economic bill, which includes billions in clean energy tax credits.
“He’s been a very effective envoy, trying to push people toward greater ambition,” John Podesta, the chief climate adviser to the Obama administration, told Kerry’s DailyExpertNews. “In light of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, diplomacy becomes all the more difficult.”
But Kerry’s message is simple: the climate crisis cannot be pushed aside from the near-term growth of fossil fuels as the world fathoms the energy crisis.
“Obviously the whole gas and fuel picture of Europe has changed overnight,” Kerry told DailyExpertNews. “It’s not fun, but we have to get through it. [Climate change] is not something that goes away. Just because Putin invaded Ukraine doesn’t mean ‘okay, the climate is over and we don’t have to worry about it’.”
It is too early to know for sure whether the Russian war in Ukraine and the resulting energy bottlenecks will be good or bad for the climate in the long run. But it’s terrible in the short term as countries fall back on traditional fossil fuels to fill the gaps.
Kerry warned that a short-term increase in domestic fossil fuel production must be just that: short-term and with a turnoff.
“This is not a free permit to get in and pollute like crazy,” Kerry said. “It has to be a responsible effort to fill a gap in the short term, but with a clear plan where you are going when it comes to reducing emissions.”
According to the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world has less than three years to peak emissions and decarbonise quickly. Countries must ditch fossil fuels as quickly as possible by switching to cheaper renewables, and removing activated carbon from the air to have any hope of controlling global temperatures. We have plenty of cheap energy with wind and sun; what’s missing is the political will to get there, scientists say.
It is now Kerry’s job to instill that political will.
“There’s a nice saying: diplomacy is the art of giving someone else your way,” his former top deputy Jonathan Pershing told DailyExpertNews. “Kerry is very good at it.”
“Can they go faster?”
There’s also a tough geopolitical map that could emerge from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with two blocs of countries: one moving forward with renewable energy and the other choosing to stick with fossil fuels, Podesta told cnn.
“You have an international environment that feels like it’s splitting into two camps,” Podesta said, placing the US and Western Europe in one camp and Russia, China and Saudi Arabia in the other. “It’s possible that you really – in a way we haven’t had since the 1990s – have an Eastern Bloc and a Western Bloc. If that happens, what does that mean for the climate? Kerry’s instinct is, I think, to try keep the global system together, but that might be a lot harder.”
Podesta said he could see China easily becoming the leader of a bloc that is “both strategic and economic.”
“The question is, do they want to be the leader of the old economy while Europe and the US try to create a new economy?” he said.
“We never stopped talking to China,” Kerry said. “Obviously, if you can’t get China to do enough, we won’t be able to get where we want to go, so it’s very important to keep working with them.”
Kerry traveled to China in person for COP26 twice last year and told DailyExpertNews that he has held virtual meetings with China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua. Those virtual meetings continued into 2022, and Kerry told DailyExpertNews he hopes for a regular meeting schedule between the two countries.
Pershing told DailyExpertNews that the relationship between Kerry and China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua remains paramount.
“They disagree on some very fundamental things, but they respect each other enough to interact,” said Pershing, who left Kerry’s office late last year to return to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation as director. of the environmental program. †
The face-to-face meetings coupled with regular virtual engagements gave the US and China a door-opening relationship, Pershing said.
“Has it changed the underlying dynamics between the US and China? Not really,” he added. “But that wasn’t [Kerry’s] intent — his intent was to open the door far enough to have successful negotiations on a climate agenda.”
Nevertheless, China remains a persistent challenge. A slowdown in domestic economic growth and concerns about energy security have led the country to use more coal to build more infrastructure and keep the lights on.
“The country had nationwide power shortages last fall,” Li Shuo, a climate analyst at Greenpeace in China, told DailyExpertNews. “This – coupled with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine – is creating a strong desire for stability and self-sufficiency. More coal will help calm that fear.”
Shuo noted that China started approving new coal plants at the beginning of the year and other pro-coal policies are expected to follow later. But at the same time, he and Pershing said China is investing in renewable energy at an incredible rate. China is the world leader in increasing its renewable energy capacity, accounting for 43% of global renewable capacity growth and adding nearly 50 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2021 alone.
Pershing noted that the city of Shenzen, China, has more electric buses than the rest of the world combined.
“This is not a failure,” Pershing said. “This is ‘can they go faster?'” Pershing said.
Shuo said renewable energy sources are boosting China’s economy just as coal-fired power plants do, and therefore will continue to grow rapidly in the country.
“Our challenge is to say goodbye to the old and dirty while building new and clean energy,” Shuo said.
The climate at home
Far from his diplomatic journeys, one of Kerry’s biggest challenges this year could be what’s happening at home.
Kerry told DailyExpertNews that his team’s main mission en route to COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, this year will lead other countries to achieve the goals they set in Glasgow. But US goals also remain unfulfilled — Biden’s goal to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 depends largely on a climate bill passed by Congress.
With six months to go before the UN summit in Egypt and the midterm elections, there is very limited time for Democrats to pass a bill, and their swing vote is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — who killed Biden’s bigger bill and his $555 billion in climate and clean energy financing last year.
Spurred on in part by the European energy crisis, Manchin is back in talks with the White House about a smaller bill for clean energy measures. Kerry recently had dinner with Manchin when the two were in Paris for an international energy conference and said a climate bill passed by the Senate this year is a “real possibility”.
“I don’t want to speculate what will happen if we don’t do it,” Kerry told DailyExpertNews. “I’m going to count on doing it because we have to do it.”
Without legislative progress, US influence over COP27 could diminish. And other countries have asked US climate diplomats where Congressional domestic action is.
“They’re asking — and they should be asking,” Pershing said, pointing to the US’s “blocked history” and inconsistent climate policies that have ebbed and flowed at the whim of each president.
Still, the fact that Kerry will remain in office longer than many expected is a victory for international climate diplomacy, those close to Biden’s envoy said.
“Kerry is standing too,” Pershing said. “It means people respect him, they let him be heard, they give him access to the discussion.”