Home Climate Change John Kerry: US committed to tackling climate crisis despite fossil fuel growth | John Kerry

John Kerry: US committed to tackling climate crisis despite fossil fuel growth | John Kerry

by Editor

The US continues to be a force for good in tackling the climate crisis, despite its soaring fossil fuel production, the John Kerry has insisted.

The outgoing US climate chief acknowledged, however, that strong safeguards were needed to dismantle oil and gas infrastructure before the switch to renewables could become permanent, as he prepared to leave his post as special presidential envoy.

“I don’t agree that we are a force for ill,” he told the Guardian in an interview at the US embassy in London to mark his departure from government. “We are living up to our obligations to transition … we are in transition, and as our renewables come online they [fossil fuels] are going out at a very rapid rate.”

The US, the world’s largest economy, is also the largest oil and gas producer, as fracking and exploration have burgeoned in response to rising fossil fuel prices. The US president, Joe Biden, called a pause on export permits in January, but experts say this will not be enough to halt the rapid expansion that the bonanza has engendered.

Kerry said gas producers must be subject to strict rules but that high production was needed in the near term to make the shift globally from coal to a low-carbon economy. Meanwhile, the US could slash its greenhouse gas emissions and lead the world on clean technology, he added.

“Yes, we’re the largest [oil and gas] producer in the world,” he said. “But the gas transition, getting gas to replace oil and coal, has been a critical reducer of emissions. Now can it finish the job and get us to net zero? Not unless you’re capturing all the emissions.”

As a result of the rapid construction of renewable energy capacity, driven by the Inflation Reduction Act – “the most forward-leading, most comprehensive piece of climate legislation anywhere in the world”, he said, the US was on track to meet its goal of more than halving emissions by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. “The US is not blindly going out and doing two things at the same time that are in opposition [by pursuing oil and gas and climate goals],” he added.

Oil and gas production had been bolstered in response to the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he said.

“Don’t measure us by what’s happened in the last year, in terms of the continued gas thing, because the gas piece is a reaction to Ukraine, to what Russia did by cutting off power and the lack of gas availability to Europe,” he said. “We’ve been able to sustain economies, even as those economies are buying into the climate transition.”

But Kerry also sounded the alarm over the future of gas. “I’m very concerned about the infrastructure that is being built,” he said. “I think we have to have a solemn commitment [to phase out the infrastructure, potentially well before the end of its life]. I raised this with every gas producer that I happen to be in conversation with. We cannot build out 30- and 40-year infrastructure that is going to wind up being stranded assets when this transition takes place.”

Those commitments would require new regulation, he said. “We have to create the incentives and structures and regulations in the marketplace. They are going to move us to accomplish those goals [of completing the shift to net zero]. And if they don’t, then there will be without question repercussions in terms of what’s happening on regulation.”

Gas businesses should make plans now, he warned. “Our preference is obviously that companies will act responsibly, and not necessitate that. But we’re in that test right now.”

Kerry held the door open to companies capturing the greenhouse gas emissions that result from burning their fossil fuels. But he was sceptical over whether it could provide the whole answer to the decarbonisation problem.

“If they can’t capture them, that’s going to be a problem,” he said. “And there are people with very serious doubts as to whether or not they can capture it at scale and make it work.”

Kerry was appointed special presidential envoy for climate by Biden as soon as he took office, in January 2021. Previously, he was secretary of state – the equivalent of foreign minister in the US government – in the second presidential term of Barack Obama, from 2013-17. In that role, he helped to negotiate and signed the Paris climate agreement of 2015.

One of his central achievements in those roles was to forge a close relationship with China, the world’s biggest emitter and second biggest economy, over climate issues. In November, in the run-up to the Cop28 UN climate summit in Dubai, he and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, published a cooperation agreement, resolving to work together on cutting methane emissions and finding new ways to cut carbon.

His warm relationship with Xie has been a mainstay of UN climate summits for years. In the final press conference of Cop28, after the final outcome was reached, the two men took the stage together to pay tribute to each other. It felt like a farewell appearance, and in January news broke of first Xie and then Kerry planning to step down.

Kerry said China must break its reliance on coal. “There’s 500GW of new coal-fired power in pipeline in Asia alone, 360GW in China and 160GW in the rest of the south Asian countries, that could wipe out the gains made by Europe, the EU, US and Canada and other countries. So that is the great task ahead of us, accelerating this transition to keep in lockstep with the science.”

The official announcement of Kerry’s departure is expected within days. He will not retire entirely from the global stage, as he plans to keep pushing businesses to take stronger action on the climate.

John Podesta, a White House adviser and formerly chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and a senior adviser to Obama, will take on the role of senior adviser to the president on international climate policy.

‘The climate crisis is the test of our times’: John Kerry speaks at Kew Gardens – video

As the US prepares for what is likely to be a bitter presidential election this year, the climate crisis is expected to be a flashpoint. Though he would not single out any by name, Kerry has warned strongly against the “demagoguery” and “disinformation”, and outright lies in some cases, that are being pushed by some politicians.

The key question for climate policy is the last-ditch global effort to restrain temperature rises to 1.5C above preindustrial levels. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to keep that [1.5C limit] alive,” Kerry said. “Enough scientists now say we may already have gone through 1.5C, so that’s the urgency there. That’s the imperative that drives us.”

Is 1.5C already a hopeless effort? Kerry is “worried” about the target but wants to keep it as the central goal. “I’m not ready to say we can’t do it, if we do the right things that we know we need to do.”

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