Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry on US Climate Leadership & COP 26

John Kerry

This week, global leaders convene in Glasgow, Scotland, for COP 26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Speaking at the inaugural Globe Summit, Former Obama Secretary of State John Kerry, who serves as the Biden Administration’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, discusses the role he plays going into COP26 and what he expects to see come out of the negotiations. Despite current upward emissions trajectories, Kerry is hopeful that countries, including the US, will take additional key actions to ensure the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2030, particularly through decarbonization of energy and vehicle electrification. VX News shares with readers this fireside chat moderated by Boston Globe Reporter Sabrina Shankman.

I would like to kick things off by asking you about the challenge you will be facing in Glasgow in a few weeks for the next round of international climate talks. According to a recent report from the UN, at a time when we should be working to decrease global emissions by 45 percent by 2030, based on the commitments that countries have made so far, we are instead on a path to see emissions rise 16 percent by then. Part of your job will be convincing nations to step up their ambition, and part of your challenge will be doing it in the aftermath of Donald Trump. How do you convince other nations to do more when they could easily point to the United States’ tenuous recent history and the uncertainty for our future commitments?

John Kerry: The answer to that is very straightforward. We are not Donald Trump's administration. What President Biden has done is rejoin Paris and issue countless executive orders that set America on a path to reduce. We have a goal of a 50 to 52 percent reduction [in emissions] in the next 10 years, and we will achieve it. We have already announced with General Motors and Ford Motor Company that 50 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States by 2030 will be electric. By 2035, our power sector will be carbon free; that is not just coal free, but coal, gas, and oil. We will get there because our utilities are being supportive of this endeavor.

The fact is that over the last months, with President Biden's summit, we summoned 55 percent of the global GDP in an announced plan to keep 1.5 degrees as a limit in the warming of the [global] temperature over these next 10 years. The countries are Canada, Japan, the United States, the UK and the EU, which make up 55 percent of global GDP. Regrettably, we are still working on the other 45 percent. China took a step the other day in New York when it announced it will no longer fund foreign coal, and that is a very important step. More importantly, we are working with China to get a larger reduction of emissions over the course of the next 10 years, and mitigation is a critical component of this goal.

We are negotiating with India. We have India committed to 450 gigawatts of renewable power being deployed in the next 10 years. We are going to work with them as a partner to help bring technology and finance to the table. India is going to work to make sure their government moves faster and makes the allocation for transmission lines, land for solar, and revenue collection from the people who use the electricity.

We are working like crazy to help these countries to be able to raise their ambition. My prediction? We will go to Glasgow and most countries will raise ambition. Regrettably, a good number probably will not raise it enough. We are going to have to keep pushing; that is just part of the course of things. We will have the highest level of ambition ever set forth, even though it is clearly not enough as the UN observed this week. So, it is a matter of public pressure and also providing help. President Biden committed to doubling the money we put on the table for the 100 billion. The US is geared and totally fixed on a course that will do our part to keep 1.5 degrees alive. We need to bring other countries to the table.

As countries are stepping up their ambition and pledges at Glasgow, it is a matter of also convincing them to enact policies when they get back home so that those pledges aren't empty? How do you, in your role, ensure that the pledges made in Glasgow turn into policies back home?

My role is not directly to do that. I am responsible for the international relationships and for putting together the overall fabric of Glasgow. Gina McCarthy, the White House team, Brian Deese, and others are more involved in the day-to-day negotiations with Congress. That is where the key lies: in passing the Infrastructure Bill, which is on the Hill today. I do some meetings with members of Congress in order to show them what is happening globally and to help them understand our international picture, but I try to stay in my lane and not get directly involved in those negotiations unless asked.

In the 2000s, there was the idea that natural gas could be a bridge fuel that would be better for climate than oil, and that resulted in a major growth in the natural gas industry. Since then, we have learned a lot about how methane emissions from natural gas are actually exacerbating global warming. Now with even less time on the clock to act on climate, there is this race to find the next solution. As nations plan for their climate futures, how can we be sure that we are not embracing climate solutions that do not actually eliminate emissions?

We cannot be sure because some countries are going to do that. We are constantly warning people against the idea of overly relying on gas to become the transitional bridge here. Some countries will have to do that. Frankly, I would be far happier with certain countries quickly moving to gas as a temporary measure because, if you get off coal, you have a 50 percent immediate reduction in emissions.

Natural gas, regrettably, is 87 percent or more methane. When you burn it, it is Carbon Dioxide that goes up and that is part of the problem, but when you are transporting or storing it, the leakage levels are somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. Methane is 20 to 80 times more damaging than Carbon Dioxide.

We have to de-fossilize as fast as we can, and we have to get out of coal. In America, about 500 coal plants have closed and there are about 58 that closed this year. That will leave us with a core group of around 100. By 2035, as President Biden has said, we are going to have carbon-free production of America's electricity.

For our international partners, is it better to come to a solution that involves building out infrastructure for gas that could last for decades than to continue with coal for a smaller number of years and come to a solution that will actually be carbon-free? What is the balance?

The balance is to not build out for 30 years. Do what you need to do to have a base load guarantee. Everybody needs energy security. Many countries are now getting up to even 90 percent renewable. Some countries and states are actually 100 percent and over. I was in Germany recently and the Brandenburg state produces about 120 percent of its energy needs renewably. It has hydro, wind and solar, and it exports the excess energy. Other places are not blessed to have the same kind of natural resource. In some places, you may have to use gas temporarily, and I would urge people to think about it without building out these huge new infrastructures and not planning on a 30 or 40 year lifetime use of that particular facility.

Are there other low-hanging fruit that you could identify that would be key to taking a chunk out of our emissions in the short-term?

Absolutely. First of all, we have created something called The Methane Pledge. We raised it at our Major Economies Forum just last week. Six of the twenty largest emitters in the world have signed up to reduce methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. It is not for a country to reduce 30 percent; but that globally we want to reach 30 percent.

On hydrofluorocarbons, we have the Kigali Agreement, which I had the privilege of negotiating. We agreed that we would reduce the refrigerant chemical that is used in order to get good air conditioning. It is supported by the National Association of Manufacturers, by the Chamber of Commerce, and by the chemical industry. I hope the president is going to send up the Kigali Agreement to the Senate sometime in the next day. If the Senate ratifies it, that alone could save us upwards of half a centigrade degree of warming. There are things we can do.

There are choices people can make in their day to day living for energy efficiency. It is not a requirement for sacrifice, which is a great misinformation of this particular track of debate. Donald Trump stands up and says that you are not going to be able to watch TV at night because wind is not going to blow, and that just is not true. Nobody is going to set up an automatic brownout or blackout situation. We do not have to with increasing battery storage capacity and as we move to new fuels. We will have the ability to make this a much better economy and world in which you are living. There are health benefits of reducing the pollution and getting rid of the air particulates that send our kids to hospitals with environmentally-induced asthma. There are so many positive benefits of moving down this path, not to mention, American national security.

We will not have to send young people to some other part of the world to defend our source of energy. In addition, the jobs that are created, we anticipate, are going to be the biggest economic transformation since the industrial revolution. We have to build out a grid in America because we do not even have a grid. We can send a rover to Mars and direct it around the surface, but we cannot send an electron from California to New York or to any other part of the country in a way that is sensible in the 21st century. Using AI and quantum computing, we could be much more efficient and cheaper in our provision of energy by sending it around the country when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining in one place and not in another, which creates work for plumbers, electricians, steel workers, heavy equipment operators, and countless people who would work at laying those transmission lines.

Trillions of dollars in the private sector are now lining up to be part of this transition. Why? ESG in the boardrooms has changed the debate. They know that this is the right thing to do, they know it is going to be good business, and they know that it is going to be far less disruption to the economy that we live in.


"We are working like crazy to help these countries to be able to raise their ambition. My prediction? We will go to Glasgow and most countries will raise ambition."