John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State and current U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change matters, told the world’s Ambassadors at a meeting in Washington, on May 10, that “there is no way” of keeping the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius unless CO2 emissions are drastically reduced.
Over the last two years, Kerry has traversed the globe as U.S. President Joe Biden’s point man in a massive push to stop tipping the world over the edge of a Climate Change disaster.
The statement he made to Ambassadors accredited to the U.S. government was not news, but it was sobering to hear it so explicitly told by an influential figure in global climate negotiations.
It was especially so for Ambassadors of 36 small states and 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which account for less than 2 percent and 0.55 percent, respectively of CO2 emissions, but which would be devasted if the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius is not reached.
Speaking for small island states, in response to the serious observation by Kerry, I emphasised that at 2 degrees Celsius, many countries would be severely eroded, and any greater warming would drown many islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. I also pointed out that, even if all these countries reduced their already low CO2 emissions, it would have little or no effect on the rate or intensity of global warming.
Kerry was well aware of this situation. He offered ideas on aims that must be pursued in Dubai in December when representatives of the world’s governments gather at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties, more commonly referred to as COP28. Among the goals, he listed was a greater effort by the 20 nations that emit 76 percent of warming gases into the atmosphere.
Acknowledging that 10 of these nations are developed countries, he said that many of them, such as the U.S., Germany, and the U.K., are implementing strategies to significantly reduce their emissions. But there are 10 other nations with large economies, like China, Russia, Brazil, and India, which are not reducing emissions fast enough to achieve the target of 45 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030. On the current trajectory, in 2030, the world will reach 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That is a mere seven years away.
There is no question that both China and India have recently announced long-term emissions reduction strategies. But China’s share of global emissions was nearly 31% in 2020, and it has set 2060 to reach carbon neutrality. However, that might be too late for many small island states as explained earlier. A similar situation exists with India whose government has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070.
While the commitments by these two countries are welcome news, they should understand why developing countries, which are devastatingly affected by CO2 emissions would like to see faster reductions. Their survival depends on it; this is not a matter of ideological alliances or North-South differences. Russia, too, has to assume a bigger role in cutting emissions. Hopefully, the current war with Ukraine will not influence this wider global concern.
The current strong position by the present Biden administration, on vigorously tackling Climate Change, was not shared by the previous administration of Donald Trump, who has now declared himself as the Republican Party’s candidate for the U.S. Presidency in 2024. Therefore, there is understandable concern that, if Trump wins the Presidential elections, not only would he revert to dismissing Climate Change as a myth, but he might also resume his position of withdrawing from the COP, and halting the current U.S. thrust to reduce its own emissions and to secure funding for global climate mitigation and adaptation.
John Kerry expressed confidence that the Biden administration has won too many allies for the cause of fighting Climate Change, among big U.S. corporations with a global reach, for it to be reversed. Talking at Harvard University on the same day that he addressed Ambassadors, Kerry said, “given the decisions made by Ford Motor Co., General Motors — by big corporations Google, Apple, Sales Force, FedEx — these companies are signed up, they’re on board”. And he added, “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.”
Victim states of Climate Change have to hope that he’s right in his assessment. The reversal in the U.S. position would trigger a similar reversal by other industrialised nations in their competition for larger shares of the global market for their goods. All this would have frightening consequences given the importance of maintaining the target of global warming at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Looking to COP28 in seven months’ time, Kerry named four priorities for governments: mapping the road ahead in a genuine agreement; deciding on adaptation and mitigation measures to be taken by all; fulfilling pledges to deliver the financing, including identifying the sources of financing; and dealing with the call by victim states for compensation for loss and damage.
The U.S. government also has obstacles to overcome in its own legislature. The U.S. Congress has as many climate change doubters as it has advocates, and the fossil fuel lobbies are hard at work to resist the diminution of the coal and oil industries – something about which Kerry is realistic. He explains that “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”.
In all this, victim countries of Climate Change have to advance their own interests by strongly joining the advocacy to the 20 worst CO2 emitters to recognize that they will pay the highest price for the industrialization of others – severe upheaval in their lives and livelihoods, if not extinction.
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(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)