The world is lagging behind the pace of change needed to avert catastrophic impacts from the climate crisis, John Kerry has warned in his first remarks as the US’s new climate envoy.
Kerry, the former US secretary of state, acknowledged that America had been absent from the international effort to contain dangerous global heating during Donald Trump’s presidency but added that “today no country and no continent is getting the job done”.
There would need to be a “wholesale transformation of the global economy” if the world is to reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, Kerry said. He said it was necessary for coal to be phased out five times faster than recent trends, the planet’s tree cover to be increased five times faster, renewable energy to be ramped up six times faster and a transition to electric vehicles to be 22 times faster than present.
“We need to all move together, because today very few are on a trajectory of the steep reductions needed to meet even current goals, let alone the targets we need to avert catastrophic damage,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s comments, made to business leaders at a G20 forum, are the first since he began his role as an international climate envoy in Joe Biden’s new administration. Biden, who was sworn in as US president on Wednesday, has launched a blizzard of executive actions to halt fossil fuel pipelines and drilling, protect public lands and return the US to the Paris climate agreement.
Biden is expected to convene an international climate summit ahead of crucial UN talks, known as the conference of the parties (or Cop26), to be held in Glasgow later this year. The talks are aimed at escalating cuts to planet-heating emissions agreed in Paris in 2015. A recent UN report starkly outlined the inadequacy of the current targets, which would need to increase more than fivefold to avoid the planet heating up 1.5C above the pre-industrial era and causing a cascade of climate-driven disasters.
“At the Cop in November, all nations must raise ambition together – or we will all fail, together,” Kerry said. “Failure is not an option.”
Under Trump, the US exited the Paris deal, set about dismantling pollution limits set on power plants and vehicles and opened up vast swaths of federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling. The international community has welcomed the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases back into the fold but Kerry admitted the US was returning with “humility” due to the jarring reversals of the previous administration.
“Humility because we know that the federal government of the United States, until yesterday, walked away from the table for four wasted years when we could’ve been helping to meet the challenge,” said Kerry, a Democrat who ran for president in 2004.
Kerry also spoke to Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who will act as president of Cop26 in Glasgow. Sharma pressed Kerry on the need for the US to submit a plan, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC), under the Paris agreement, setting out its proposed emissions cuts between now and 2030.
NDCs are fundamental to the Paris agreement, and all countries are expected to submit one as soon as possible, so that they can be evaluated by the UN ahead of Cop26. The UK’s plan, for a 68% cut in emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, was submitted in December.
The Guardian understands that Kerry did not give a firm answer on when the US’s NDC could be expected, but gave assurances that it was a priority.
They also discussed climate finance, a crucial issue at the talks. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, told the Guardian in an interview last December that rich countries were failing to provide the promised $100bn a year in financial assistance to poor countries to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change, and that this failure could imperil the UN talks. Kerry and Sharma are said to have agreed on the importance of climate finance, and on working together with countries that are vulnerable to climate change.
The Biden administration is already facing another difficult international climate conversation after moving to block the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would bring vast amounts of oil from Alberta, Canada, to be refined in the US. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, supports the pipeline and is expected to bring it up with Biden during the US president’s first call with a foreign leader on Friday.
There was also reason for optimism amid the challenge of tackling the climate crisis, Kerry stressed, due to the falling cost of solar energy and record investments in clean energy technology and associated jobs.
“A zero-emissions future offers huge opportunity for business, for clean, green jobs and economic growth and, to use the president’s words, to ‘build back better’ from the global economic crisis,” Kerry said.