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CERAWeek: Kerry says US will push China, other major emitters for steeper carbon cuts
Geopolitical and trade tensions notwithstanding, the US expects to work closely with China and India to commit the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters to deep carbon cuts this year, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said during a 2 March discussion at CERAWeek by IHS Markit.
The first test of whether progress can be made will come at a virtual climate summit the Biden administration will host for national leaders on April 22, where the US will ask major emitting nations to commit to those cuts.
During the discussion on US aspirations for achieving its climate goals with former US Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, Kerry acknowledged that the US and China are competing on a number of fronts, including supply chains for critical minerals needed for fuel cell development. "We must deal with this as a compartmentalized issue," Kerry said. "We will engage with China and pursue a track on climate that doesn't get confused with other items."
(The Biden approach of compartmentalization was referenced by panelists in a "Geopolitics" session on 1 March at CERAWeek, and they noted that Chinese officials so far have said they are not interested in that approach.)
While relations with China have changed since Kerry helped to negotiate the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, he said the groundwork has already been laid for a new round of diplomacy.
"I think China can be a critical partner in this, as they were before … and we will ask all major emitter nations at summit to raise their ambitions," he said.
Chinese coal plant financing a 'bone of contention'
China is set to release its 14th Five Year Plan at the National People's Congress on March 5, and early analysis suggests the country is gearing up for a major economic shift to prioritizing climate change. The nation of 1.4 billion people accounts for 70% of the world's coal plant investments today under its massive Belt and Road Initiative for developing nations.
"We've raised that issue with them, and it will continue to be a bone of contention," Kerry acknowledged.
But he also noted that companies, governments and households invested $500 billion in clean energy and electric vehicles in 2020, and that new supply chains and advances in clean technology will lead the way.
Kerry pointed to India, which has set a goal of producing all its own solar panels and is targeting 450 gigawatts of renewable capacity by 2030, which most analysts say is an unrealistic goal. For India, like many nations, finance is the number one obstacle to fully transitioning their economy.
India needs $600 billion, and Kerry said he's now talking to private-sector investors to see how much private capital can be raised to help India meet its renewable energy target. India, unlike many other nations, has yet to commit to a net-zero carbon goal.
Biden appointed Kerry in November to serve as his Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, a new position in the president's executive office that also has a seat on the National Security Council. With that move, Biden signaled not just his focus on climate change, but also that he views it as a national security concern, a point Kerry hammered home at the United Nations last week.
A former Massachusetts senator and President Obama's Secretary of State, Kerry has spent the past three decades engaging on climate change. He was credited for negotiating the complex deal with China that ultimately cleared the path for the Paris accord to which 191 nations are now a party.
Todd Stern, Obama's climate lead and chief negotiator in Paris, has described him as an "effective, tireless, and indefatigable negotiator."
The Paris accord set out to limit global warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels, with hopes of keeping the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. With the world having already crossed the 1-degree mark, hopes are now fading that countries will manage the aspirational 1.5 degrees—although Kerry said the focus now is on trying to keep "1.5 alive."
Keeping climate change in check
Nations are meeting for 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. The number one topic there will be how to keep climate change in check while the world seeks to transition to a clean economy by mid-century.
The UN last week released a five-year Paris Agreement scorecard, warning that national ambitions are falling far short and calling on the US and other top emitters—which have yet to update their goals—to step up to the plate. The Biden administration is currently consulting with climate experts while developing its "nationally determined contribution" (NDC) that is expected to be unveiled at next month's climate summit.
The International Energy Agency reported 2 March that global carbon dioxide emissions have rebounded, especially in major emitting nations, after dropping steeply in 2020 due to pandemic-induced lockdowns that brought economic activity to a standstill.
The US in December 2020 saw its emissions approaching the level seen in the same month in 2019. The IEA attributed this to accelerated economic activity as well as a combination of higher natural gas prices and colder weather favoring an increase in coal use. China saw what IEA said is its greatest year-on-year increase in emissions, 75 million metric tons , as it became the first country to emerge from the lockdown. India and Brazil also reported increases in emissions.
Environmental groups are pushing for a 50% reduction in US emissions compared with 2005 levels by 2030. Kerry would only say 2 March that the US NDC will need to be "very aggressive," but also "realistic and achievable."
The US committed to rejoin the Paris Agreement on 20 January, and officially became part of the treaty a month later, after President Donald Trump withdrew the nation from the pact.
Extreme and climate-related weather events cost the US $95 billion in damages in 2020, with no other year recording so many billion-dollar events, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Information reported in January.
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