US Climate Envoy John Kerry and his team were hoping things would look very different heading into the world’s premier climate summit this week, but officials have begun downplaying expectations as clouds gather over the upcoming talks.
It’s a dreary turn of events for Kerry at the capstone of his long year of work for President Joe Biden, potentially his last big act of service in the spotlight before he returns to private life. Friends and colleagues tell CNN they have long assumed Kerry would leave government service after a year or so.
But that plan was largely based on the hope of a big first-year win for the climate — while Congress is closer than it has been in months to passing major elements of Biden’s climate agenda, which will be the largest investment the US has ever made on the climate crisis, a bill is still not signed.
An impending global energy crisis has thrown markets into a “tailspin,” as one Kerry aide put it to CNN, prompting Biden to plead for more crude oil production from oil-producing nations in the Middle East.
And neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Russian President Vladimir Putin — leaders of two of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world — will even be attending the summit, known as COP26.
Russia and China “basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change,” Biden said during a news conference on Sunday. “And there is a reason why people should be disappointed in that. I found it disappointing myself.”
The circumstances have led Biden administration officials to lower expectations for the Glasgow meeting, which they are messaging more as the beginning of a long process than as the culmination of Kerry’s efforts over the last eight months.
“Glasgow is an important milestone as we kick off what we’re calling the decisive decade of action to tackle the climate crisis,” a senior administration official said this week. “And this will be an opportunity for us to lay down the foundation for further action, how we ratchet up our ambition in the upcoming years after Glasgow.”
It is also unclear how long Kerry will remain in the job after COP26. It had been widely assumed among Kerry’s friends that he would bow out after the summit, according to former Obama adviser John Podesta. A State Department official said that was the sense internally as well.
“Secretary Kerry is fully committed to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate role. He has no plans to leave and will continue the effort after COP26, which he’s said is a milestone, not the end of the race,” said Whitney Smith, Kerry’s communications director.
US credibility on the line
For months, Kerry has been crisscrossing the globe trying to rally foreign allies and adversaries to make bolder commitments to fight climate change. The world has not stepped up in the way Kerry had hoped, and he has acknowledged that any agreements reached in Glasgow for cutting emissions will likely fall short of targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“It would be wonderful if everybody came and everybody hit the 1.5 degrees mark now,” he told the Associated Press earlier this month. “That would be terrific. But some countries just don’t have the energy mix yet that allows them to do that.”
But some of the biggest obstacles Kerry has encountered, particularly in rebuilding American credibility on the world stage, have begun at home.
After reentering the US in the Paris climate accord in January, Biden laid out an aggressive target to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52% relative to 2005 levels by 2030. Administration officials have emphasized for months that the US must show major progress on those goals before Glasgow, and Biden on Thursday proposed a $555 billion climate agenda — nestled within a broader $1.75 trillion framework — that he believes all Democrats will support.
“I believe we will pass my Build Back Better plan and I believe we will pass the infrastructure bill,” Biden said at Sunday’s news conference. “Combined they have $900 billion … in climate resilience and it’s the largest investment in the history of the world that has ever occurred. And it’s going to pass in my view, but we will see.”
But the legislation has yet to be passed heading into the summit, and Kerry’s office has been watching the negotiations play out with some trepidation. His team is aware that they would be in a stronger position to raise other countries’ ambitions at Glasgow if the US had the bold new plans to showcase. But they also believe world leaders understand that the domestic talks are out of Kerry’s control.
“Overall, (Kerry) taking on the assignment has added real energy to the diplomacy going into COP,” said Podesta.
“But it rides a lot on whether people perceive the US as making good on our new (nationally determined contribution),” which in turn depends on whether the domestic legislation passes, he said.
“I think the world will judge an announced framework, they cover this very closely,” Podesta said. “The truth is that Secretary Kerry can only do so much about that.”
Kerry has also felt hamstrung at times by the administration’s broader foreign policy and national security initiatives, according to US officials.
Although Kerry is a principal member of the National Security Council, he does not weigh in, nor is he consulted, on every key foreign policy decision the White House makes, the officials said — including those that might negatively affect his ability to negotiate with adversaries like China and Russia. The two countries produce some 32% of global CO2 emissions, and US officials and lawmakers view their buy-in as vital to achieving ambitious climate goals.
Kerry did not appreciate the administration’s decision, therefore, to enter into the new AUKUS security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia — widely perceived as a new way to counter China — just a few months before COP, as Kerry was trying to extract key climate commitments from Beijing, according to people familiar with his reaction. He and his team have been pushing China to accelerate the date at which they plan to peak their carbon dioxide emissions, so that the world has a chance of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial era.
As talks at lower levels have stagnated, Kerry has also been pushing for more direct communication between Biden and Xi, the people said. The two presidents have spoken only twice since Biden took office.
Chinese officials have indicated that the spiraling relationship with Washington has hindered coordination on climate change.
“The China-US climate change cooperation cannot be separated from the overall environment of China-U.S. relations,” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told Kerry last month.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan, though, has remained steadfast in his belief that the US should not pull any punches on China in exchange for more ambitious climate action, people familiar with his thinking said.
“We are not in the business of trading cooperation with China on climate change as a favor that Beijing is doing for the United States,” Sullivan said earlier this year.
Kerry has run into similar hurdles with Russia. In Moscow over the summer to discuss climate change — months after the administration imposed a new round of sanctions on Russian officials and companies for election meddling, hacking, and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexi Navalny — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked Kerry whether sanctions relief might be on the table for Russia, people familiar with their meeting said.
Both Russia and China have opted for a less ambitious target for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, promising to do so by 2060 instead of the US and European Union-backed goal of 2050.
An energy crisis at the worst possible time
Meanwhile, a global energy crisis is looming and officials in China, India and the European Union are scrambling to find readily available energy sources that can quickly alleviate some of the pressure — potentially undermining much of the momentum Kerry built ahead of the major summit.
The National Security Council has been holding regular deputy and principal committee meetings on the energy issue, US officials said, as the administration tries to figure out what caused the crunch and how to stabilize the markets and ensure energy security not only before COP but also before winter hits. While the administration has taken many steps to wean the US off fossil fuels, Biden in August had to plead with OPEC to produce more oil to combat rising energy prices.
In Sunday’s news conference, Biden acknowledged that “on the surface,” requesting more oil “looks like an irony, but the truth is that the idea that we are going to be able to move to renewable energy and from this moment on not use oil or gas … is just not realistic.” He added that “we’ll get to the point by 2050” where the US will reach net-zero emissions.
A senior US official lamented that the shock could discourage countries even further from restricting their fossil fuel usage. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, for example, indicated at a gathering of the National Energy Commission earlier this month that power shortages and blackouts across the country were the result of provincial governments moving too quickly to meet Beijing’s emissions targets.
“We must have all-round considerations and arrangements for the nation as a whole, and (provinces) must not jump the gun,” he said.
The crisis has in the meantime given Russia, whose economy relies heavily on oil and gas exports, an upper hand. European demand for Russian gas shipments has soared, as Moscow has played coy on whether it will ramp up production to meet that demand — Russia is still waiting on the European Union to certify its major new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2. And while Putin has promised to “strive” for carbon neutrality by 2060, it remains unclear what steps he will actually take to get there.
Putin pointed to the crisis in European energy markets as a reason to slow down the global transition to clean energy.
“There must be a smooth transition,” he said this month. “We see what certain unbalanced decisions, unbalanced development and sharp twists can lead to.”
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