The push to keep the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius is doomed unless world leaders take significant near-term action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry said Tuesday during a conversation with Harvard President Larry Bacow.
“We are working very hard with countries to meet the standards set by the IEA [International Energy Agency] and the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] that we have [to reach] to achieve a 43 to 45 percent reduction in emissions between now and 2030,” said Kerry, a former U.S. senator and former U.S. secretary of state.
“Only if we do that will we have a hope of keeping 1.5 degrees alive and we are way off track right now. In fact we’re heading toward 2.5, perhaps 3 degrees. So folks have a real reason to be deeply agitated and concerned about what we’re doing.”
The conversation, in which Kerry participated virtually, anchored the daylong symposium “Rising to the Climate Challenge,” sponsored by the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability as part of Harvard Climate Action Week.
Bacow asked Kerry about volatility in global energy prices and whether a shift to carbon-neutral sources might assist energy security, which many countries cite as a drag on the shift to renewables.
Kerry noted the Ukraine war and other challenges, but described most energy-security arguments as based in fear rather than facts. He pointed out that Germany has pulled off a robust transition to renewables, which make up 50 percent of the nation’s power supply, with plans to reach 80 percent.
“When I listen to these countries and they say, ‘We’re worried about energy security, we have to use gas, we have to continue to use coal.’ No, they don’t. They could actually be transitioning their energy bases. Many of them are at 5 percent, 1 percent, 3 percent of their energy base coming from renewables. Security can exist with massive amounts of renewables.”
Kerry acknowledged, however, that a quick and easy rejection of fossil fuels is impossible. The world is in “a terrible fix,” he said, encouraging an emphasis on
natural gas as a transition fuel — accompanied by efforts to mitigate its climate impact — because it produces 30 to 50 percent lower emissions than oil or coal.
“It would be nice to switch now, but no one wants the economies of the world to crash, which is what could happen if you began to drive the price of oil and gas up too much and drive the supply down to too little,” Kerry said.
Kerry highlighted the importance of the 2030 global emissions goals, saying that only if we hit those marks will we be on track to reach zero net emissions by midcentury.
The problem is one that can be largely solved by the 20 nations that emit 76 percent of warming gases into the atmosphere, Kerry said. Ten of them are developed nations, most of which have outlined significant targets, such as the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. Measures in the majority of developing nations won’t have much of an impact. The 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, emit just 0.55 percent of the global greenhouse gas total.
But there are 10 developing nations with large economies, like China, Russia, Brazil, and India, whose plans are not keeping pace with reality. Even amid fragile relations with China, Kerry believes that there may be room to negotiate on climate change.
“Our challenge is to bring them on board as fast as we can and help them to reduce those emissions at a pace that matches the 1.5 degree [target],” Kerry said.
When other nations ask about Washington’s leadership on warming, Kerry points out that during the Trump administration, which was hostile to climate action, 75 percent to 80 percent of new electricity generation in the U.S. came in the form of renewables. Today, he said, actions by automakers, tech companies, and other corporate leaders ensure that progress will continue, regardless of who’s in charge.
“I think now, given the decisions made by Ford Motor Co., General Motors — by big corporations Google, Apple, SalesForce, FedEx — these companies are signed up, they’re on board, their CEOs understand what’s happening,” he said. “And I don’t think any one president can possibly come in now, from whatever wing of whatever party — there’s no way we’re going backward. The global economy has made this decision and it’s more powerful than any politician.”