US climate envoy Kerry warns world against turning back to coal

US climate envoy John Kerry has warned the world not to turn back to coal as it attempts to wean itself from Russian gas, saying the war in Ukraine should not be an excuse to delay climate goals.

The fallout from the conflict and deteriorating relations between the US and China have made it harder to get the world’s biggest emitters to make further agreements about cutting emissions more quickly, he acknowledged in an interview with the Financial Times.

“The key thing is not to give into this notion that, ‘Oh, Ukraine has changed everything, and so we will be building out infrastructure that we decided a little while ago that we can’t do now’,” Kerry said.

“Some people are trying to interpret it as, ‘This means we gotta build coal’,” he added. “But that’s not our reality.”

Global energy prices have skyrocketed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and many countries have said that they will have to increase coal consumption this winter due to the fall in Russian gas supplies.

Major energy producers including the US are also increasing their production of oil and gas in response to high prices and concerns over fuel shortages.

US climate envoy John Kerry
John Kerry: ‘The climate crisis will not take account [of] current world events or the difficulty of doing some things’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Speaking just days after new research found that the world had a 50 per cent chance of crossing the 1.5C global warming threshold within the next five years, Kerry stressed that acting on climate change was urgent.

“We are in a questionable, dangerous place for the planet,” he said, pointing to recent high temperatures in the Arctic and in Antarctica. “We have to step up on climate . . . We need to move much more rapidly” toward clean energy.

Responding to a question about BlackRock’s recent decision not to support most shareholder resolutions on climate this year, Kerry said big companies “are going to have to step up and toughen up and be part of the solution”.

The world’s largest money manager had said it was wary of proposals to stop financing fossil fuel companies, citing the war in Ukraine and the need for short-term investment in traditional energy sources fuels. High energy prices have led to bumper profits for fossil fuel companies, making it less financially attractive for investors to divest from fossil fuels.

“The climate crisis will not take account [of] current world events or the difficulty of doing some things,” Kerry said. “It will simply require that the requisite reductions be achieved, or we’re in for a very significant disruption, which will only add to whatever disruption and chaos you see in the marketplace today and life today.”

Geopolitical tensions — heightened by the war — are also undermining the delicate diplomatic balance on which the 2015 Paris climate accord depends.

Discussions between the US and China over climate co-operation have become chillier, Kerry said, because of the strained relationship between Washington and Beijing and diplomatic disagreements over other issues.

“We worked very effectively [together] for about a year, well, up through Glasgow,” Kerry said, referring to the 2021 climate summit in Scotland. “But it was clear to me from the messages I was getting from the Chinese that they were increasingly uncomfortable moving too fast, too far with us on that, because they felt the lack of progress on the other issues.”

Kerry will meet his Chinese counterpart in the coming days in Europe, after several virtual meetings this year.

For other big emitters, including India and Indonesia, the US is working with others to arrange financing packages to help those countries meet climate targets.

Kerry said the programme, called the Just Energy Transition Partnership, was working on deals that combine philanthropic capital — including from the Bezos Earth Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies — together with private finance.

“No government in the world has enough money to solve the climate crisis,” he said. “There is only one place you find the money we need in the trillions of dollars. That’s the private sector.”

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