John Kerry's essential Cop28 lessons for the climate

US special envoy hopes to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050 and tackle 'hard' emission sources to bridge the global climate divide

US climate envoy John Kerry warns time is running out

US climate envoy John Kerry warns time is running out
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From climate change activists prowling Cop28 for snatched video clips, to state leaders seeking to agree on commitments, John Kerry has touched most parts of the UN-led talks this weekend.

The steelwool grey bob of the former US senator and presidential candidate has been everywhere. And, as he likes to remind his audience, he has been at the centre of most acts of climate diplomacy for two decades.

Mr Kerry looked up the cladding of the Rove Hotel in Dubai’s Expo 2020 and remarked how the rippling tower resembled the cascades of a nuclear tower.

The assembled crowd on the first floor sun deck laughed.

He had noted the President Emmanuel Macron of France was running late and made an apology for not being a head of state. He reminded the crowd that he “came close” in 2004 when opponent George W Bush was re-elected as a war president.

Not long after though there he was a conference room with President Macron where the US and France agreed to join the Powering Past Coal alliance to phase out “unabated coal” as “absolutely essential” for meeting the 1.5°C target.

Hours later he was in conference room of entrepreneurs and philanthropists at the Bloomberg Forum talking about how the renewable energy jobs in the US are absorbing the transferable job skills of workers leaving the extractive industry.

Cop28 has seen a series of far-reaching announcements to double down on the Net Zero carbon goals. Working closely with Cop28 President Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Mr Kerry has been at the heart of most of the big-ticket announcements.

US President Joe Biden, only a few years older than his envoy, has not travelled to the summit.

It was left to Vice President Kamala Harris to make the big announcement that the US was adding $3bn to the Green Climate Fund, the flagship global fund for adaptation to the climate crisis.

The announcement came after the US suffered a backlash for a comparatively paltry donation of $17.5m to the surprise breakthrough of a Loss and Damage Fund.

Indefatigable energy is par of the course for the 79-year-old Mr Kerry who was marching around in temperatures in the high 20s.

In Europe’s February freeze he was spotted carrying his own bags at a security forum in Munich.

As a former presidential candidate he can weave his own narrative around his audience.

Speaking to the launch event for a drive to triple the output of the nuclear industry by 2050, he recalled how he served in a navy group that included nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, something that the US pioneered in the 1950s but that has not been brought to the wider shipping world. (The ocean shipping trade is estimated to be responsible for at least three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and only just promised net zero this summer.)

A seasoned campaigner Mr Kerry, who was also secretary of state, has a stock argument that shifts shapes between audiences.

At the Cop28 meeting it is a report that was published in 2018 that said the world had 12 years to radically change direction or loose the battle overall.

“This was five years ago,” he exclaims with a hand spread out.

Mr Kerry is not catastrophist. He is 100 per cent sure the world will get to a low/no carbon economy.

“What I’m not certain and I don’t think anyone can be certain that we are going to get there in time to do what the scientists told us to do in the 2018 report,” he said.

For each audience there is a twist. The video ambush saw the activist told that the US was indeed part of the G7 move to phase out fossil fuels, whatever the final communique from Cop28 may resolve.

On stage at the Rove, the former Navy Seal told the story about serving alongside a nuclear-powered vessel in his early 20s.

For the philanthropists, he recalled that the word "methane" was not mentioned in the 2015 Paris talks that set the 1.5°C global warming limit.

It was one of a bunch of “hard to abate” sectors that were judged too hard for the negotiators to broach. “They were hard because for a bunch of years they were just ignored.

Mr Kerry had just joined the US to China and the UAE in backing a methane declaration, the Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter, by leading operators, which calls for net zero emissions by 2050 or before.

The firms will also aim for “near-zero” upstream methane emissions and zero routine flaring by 2030.

Needless to say, Mr Kerry could be seen huddled with oil firms leaders like Bob Dudley and Nigeria’s oil boss Malam Mele Kyari, only a few days before pushing for the initiative.

Underpinning it all is the strength of his convictions. It is the same spirit as the military veteran turned anti-Vietnam War showed calling on Congress to end the conflict in the early 1970s.

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die,” he asked a silent Senate.

When wars to protect the sources of energy ends, Mr Kerry foresees a better life for all. “In fact, you even have a chance of staying alive,” he added.

Updated: December 02, 2023, 4:03 PM