US Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry joined Tony Blair last Thursday to discuss the urgency of the climate crisis, the actions that need to be taken to address it, and what a positive outcome at COP26 might look like. The session was accompanied by the release of our new paper Mind the Gap: Success at COP26 which offers a recipe for success at the summit in November.
The outcome of the discussion was clear – both Kerry and Blair agreed that current policy is insufficient and that COP26 represents the last best hope of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change, but the key sentiment was one of optimism with a focus on the huge opportunity the issue presents.
The discussion exhibited a clear appreciation of the scale of the threat that climate change poses and the difficulties involved in addressing it. Secretary Kerry pointed to conversations between the US and leaders of island states who are already being forced to plan the relocation of their citizens as sea level rise becomes a present, rather than future, issue. And both speakers acknowledged that poorer nations were least responsible for climate change and least equipped to adapt to the consequences. The moral imperative to act has never been more pressing.
There is, however, reason for optimism.
As Secretary Kerry pointed out, the transition to net-zero emissions will see a major expansion of new sectors, which will provide opportunities to address social inequalities and drive economic growth. The US alone will need to plant trees five times faster than it does today, while renewables will need to be deployed at six times the current rate and electric vehicles twenty-two times as fast. And the revolution is already underway - the fastest growing US job in 2020 was a wind turbine technician and solar panel installer came in third place. The green shoots of a brighter future are evident but both Kerry and Blair were adamant that leaders must adopt a more positive approach to climate action, with an emphasis on the opportunities and benefits, in order to continue to build a political mandate.
The optimism continues on the international stage. Secretary Kerry highlighted intense climate dialogue between the US and other nations and the influence this can have on easing geopolitical tensions. China in particular has been a key recent focus for the US with no less than 15 virtual sessions on climate between the two nations followed by a visit to Shanghai for Kerry, which concluded with a joint statement addressing the climate crisis. Kerry was clear that the US will continue to search for common ground with China on climate action and use the topic to prove the capacity for the US and China to co-operate and diminish tensions on other issues. This is a promising example of how the common issue of climate change can be leveraged to help build a rapport between adversaries and improve international relations.
Next steps – COP26 and beyond
Looking to the future, and with reference to the recent uptick in the frequency of extreme weather events, both Kerry and Blair agreed that more emphasis needs to be placed on climate change adaptation. There was acknowledgment that adaptation has not received the level of attention and funding that was needed and that the issue needs to be brought front and centre, alongside mitigation to ensure that we are able to live with the consequences of warming temperatures that are already baked in, while minimising any future temperature rise.
There was also a strong emphasis on the need for developed countries to follow through on pledges to help the developing world grow in a sustainable manner. Secretary Kerry pointed to the 860 million people around the world living without access to electricity and the need to ensure that access is provided to these people in a sustainable way. The obligation on developed nations to assist their developing counterparts was perceived to go beyond simply providing climate finance. According to Kerry, it should also include assistance on the design of bespoke decarbonisation strategies, as well as the development and deployment of low carbon technologies.
A commitment from the largest emitting countries to move at the speed required to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement was viewed as the most critical next step in addressing climate change. Secretary Kerry suggested that if key economies and emitters such as China, the US, the EU, and others began to transition at the pace required it would have a remarkable downstream impact, driving change in all other countries. The imperative for developed nations to step up action on climate change is therefore not only due to their overwhelming contribution to historical emissions, but also due the ripple effect of their market actions.
John F. Kennedy once said “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
It is without doubt that the climate crisis is the defining challenge of the 21st century and the potential pitfalls are myriad. However, as the discussion between Secretary Kerry and Tony Blair last Thursday rightly highlighted, the response to climate change presents countless opportunities for economic and social progress, and for more harmonious international relations.
But in order to be on the right side of history, leaders of the developed world must act now.