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Climate Change

John F. Kerry, US special envoy for climate, on what it will take to curb global warming

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
June 20, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 23


Sustainability is at the top of the agenda for governments and corporations. Of course, the United Nations’ sustainable development goals are on leaders’ minds given the 2030 agenda. But more immediately, they are eyeing the 2021 UN climate change conference (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

Against that background, the Economist organized an interview with John F. Kerry, the US’s first special presidential envoy for climate, during Sustainability Week US 2021. The event was designed to facilitate dialogue around how climate-driven changes to policy and regulations in the US will affect both businesses and society.

Kerry was positive when asked if the US could be “relied upon to lead the global charge of global change.” He argued that US leadership on this issue is credible because the Biden administration has agreed to bold emission targets, there is ambitious legislation aimed at reducing carbon pollution and energy costs making its way through Congress, and the US is proposing and investment of $2 trillion to support the infrastructure changesneeded to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. He noted that many of the administration’s climate-related policy changes don’t require congressional approval, which could help avoid political delays.

Kerry stated that no matter what happens in Congress, no politician can change the direction the world is moving in regarding climate. He pointed out that many governors from states around the country stood against former president Donald J. Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. Thirty-seven states, representing 80% of the US population, opposed the move. More than 1,000 mayors had also pledged to stay within the framework of the Paris Agreement anyway. These 37 states “have already passed renewable portfolio laws and are living by them,” Kerry said, adding that over the past few years, 75% of the new electricity produced in the US has come from renewables.

Businesses are also on the side of sustainability, Kerry said. Banks and asset management companies have articulated that they’ll be investing in climate-related activity, he stated, “and the floor for that investment is at about $4.6 trillion over 10 years.” The manufacturing sector is following suit, he said, with General Motors, for example, announcing that it will not manufacture cars with internal combustion engines starting in 2025.

The challenge “is not will we get where we need to go but will we get there fast enough,” Kerry said. The Biden administration has pledged that by 2035, all energy produced in the US will be carbon-free.T

ackling the climate crisis is not just about climate, Kerry says. “Real leaders in most countries are behind this because it is about jobs, about international leadership, about health and safety for citizens, about the security of our nations.” He spoke of how countries are joining the race for new technologies so they can be “part of this new energy future that we are embracing globally.” From a technology perspective, Kerry said, the energy market is the largest ever known: 4.5 billion to 5 billion energy consumers rising to 9 billion by 2050. And solutions that do not yet exist will play a huge role in stabilizing the planet, he said.

What does Kerry hope to achieve during COP26? He defined success as setting ambitious but realistic emission targets for the next 10 years—a period he described as “critical” for staying within the 1.5 °C limit for global warming adopted in the Paris Agreement. He remains hopeful that a critical mass of countries will commit to this target and that those countries include the 20 or so nations responsible for 75% of global emissions.

Until COP26 delegates gather this fall, Kerry said, he will be engaging in “hard diplomacy” to ensure that “we go where we need to go.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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