Reviving trust: Assessing Climate Envoy John Kerry’s visit to India, other countries

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U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry meets with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India, April 7, 2021. India’s Press Information Bureau/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

John Kerry has been flying around the world trying to get some of the biggest polluters to step up their fight against climate change in time for a White House summit on April 22. If new goals are the measure of success, the meeting is shaping up to be a disappointment.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy this week touched down in Shanghai, China-the most high profile stop on a tour that’s so far included India, the U.K., Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates. Later he’ll travel to Seoul, South Korea.

His mission is to reestablish America as a leader on global climate action after four years of backtracking under Donald Trump. That means setting an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target and then cajoling others to strengthen their goals.

Before the U.S. can lead, however, it will first have to overcome the world’s mistrust. After all, the country’s reneged on its climate promises before.

“They’ve clearly been looking to try to encourage other countries to also increase their ambition, but I don’t think this is the date,” said Pete Ogden, who served in the Obama administration and is now vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the United Nations Foundation. “I do not expect that everything will be on a glide path to 1.5 degrees” after the summit, he said.

The Paris Agreement strives to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the limit scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming. To get there the world will have to zero out greenhouse gases emissions by 2050, a timeline that will only be achieved if countries step up their climate action significantly.

Kerry can rely on some of the U.S.’s close allies to show support. Canada plans to present more aggressive targets this month. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who’ll meet Biden Friday at the White House, is currently discussing plans for stronger 2030 commitments, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi told a BloombergNEF summit in New York on Wednesday.

South Korea, which has invested billions of dollars in overseas coal power plants, is debating whether to halt financing further projects amid pressure from the U.S. ahead of Biden’s summit, according to government officials who requested anonymity to discuss private talks.

John Kerry, center, leaves the Ministry of Finance in New Delhi, India, on April 6. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by T. Narayan.

Kerry hasn’t had similar success with other countries. In New Delhi, he pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to set a net-zero target for India, the world’s third-biggest emitter. Top officials are considering a 2050 goal, people familiar with the discussions said earlier. The timing and scope of any announcement is unclear, not least because India wants to see more climate finance first.

“In climate debates, historical responsibility is a very important aspect,” minister Prakash Javadekar said in New Delhi on Wednesday. “We are not responsible for the climate change that is happening.”

Getting developed countries to contribute more is a sticking point. Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said in an interview he plans to ask Biden for $1 billion a year to curb deforestation in the Amazon basin. President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration is holding weekly meetings with Kerry. “Brazil has been able to preserve 84% of the rainforest and that means it has the credentials to ask for that money,” Salles said.

In 2009, rich countries promised to collect $100 billion a year in climate finance for vulnerable nations by 2020. They aren’t on track to deliver on their pledge, said Nisha Krishnan, senior climate finance associate at the World Resources Institute. “We’re at a critical point where there is an urgent need for new leadership in the climate finance debate,” she said. “Financing needs are just increasing.”

Kerry has said he wants to work with the world’s 20 worst polluters to cut emissions more rapidly. A question mark hangs over China, the biggest emitter. President Xi Jinping has said he wants to eliminate emissions by 2060, but hasn’t announced a stronger 2030 goal, which all countries are required to do under the Paris accord.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry meets with India’s Finance Minister
Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi, India, April 6, 2021.
Photo: India’s Press Information Bureau handout, via Reuters

On Thursday, April 15, 2021, China said that Xi will attend a virtual leaders’ climate summit with the leaders of France and Germany on Friday. That may be seen as a snub to Kerry while he is in China, especially since Xi hasn’t officially confirmed if he’ll attend Biden’s summit. It may also help to thaw relations between Beijing and Brussels that have become strained over accusations of human-rights abuses in China’s far western Xinjiang region. China and the European Union engaged in tit-for-tat sanctions last month over the claims.

“I don’t think China’s goals will be adjusted because of the requirements from the U.S.,” said Zou Ji, president of Energy Foundation China who was a key member of the Chinese climate negotiation team in Paris. “The blame game is the wrong direction.” Zou said it was possible that China and the U.S. could reformulate a joint working group on climate change, signaling a new era of collaboration among the two countries that together spew out 40% of greenhouse gases.

While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin plans to attend, his economy ministry-which is responsible for emissions legislation-has given no indication it will strengthen its conservative climate targets in the near future.

Meanwhile tensions between the two nations continue to rise after Biden labelled Putin a killer and confronted him over issues including a buildup of forces near Ukraine’s borders on a phone call. The Biden administration is poised to impose a raft of new sanctions on Russia, people familiar with the matter said, though Biden has also offered the possibility of a summit meeting with Putin in the coming months.

Not even all U.S. allies are on board with Biden’s green push. Australia hasn’t publicly confirmed its attendance and the country has yet to commit to a specific net-zero goal. Prime Minster Scott Morrison said in February that the nation should aim to do so and “preferably by 2050.”

Another key target for Kerry is Saudi Arabia, which depends largely on oil export revenue and has promised to announce more details of its green plan later this year. The nation hasn’t said if it will attend the summit.

“The invitation is received and certainly we will work with our friends, but we have also our own initiatives and we would like to keep a good deal of what we want to do for when people visit us hopefully soon to celebrate with us,” Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman told reporters in Riyadh.

The summit’s objective is to encourage major economies to boost their climate ambition so that the 1.5°C goal is within reach, a State Department spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the U.S. has invited countries to use the meeting as an “opportunity to announce their plans.” While it may not deliver immediate wins on that front, the gathering could help to galvanize momentum ahead of the COP26 global negotiations due to be held in November in Glasgow, Scotland.

“I am expecting stronger political will toward the achievement of our objective,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Global Leader of Climate & Energy at WWF and former President of COP20. “It is not the role of the U.S. to push other countries but to show what is happening and to lead by example to bring and convene more countries to do the same.”

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