U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry meets with key partners before Leaders Summit on Climate

For the archetypal (white) American, a Euro-trip means a chance to unwind and get a taste of true culture. For Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, last week’s trip to London, Brussels, and Paris was less gleefully riding the Euro-rail line than it was soberly formulating plans for new track – or repairing old ones.

The in-person meetings from March 8-10 occurred just over a month before the U.S.-hosted Leaders Summit on Climate in April meant to rally global economic leaders in preparation for COP26 – the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – in Glasgow (U.K.) this November (for reference, the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015 at COP21).

In London, Kerry met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and several top cabinet officials including COP26 President Alok Sharma who has the formidable task of ensuring countries arrive to COP26 ready for action – with U.S. support.

Despite some notable percussion – from China, India, and Japan – leading up to the Climate Ambition Summit last December that marked exactly five years from the Paris Agreement, only about 70 out of a total 195 signatories presented revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The U.S. was not in attendance, neither was Brazil, Australia, nor South Africa.

Both the U.S. and U.K. have pledged to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050 and to support “the world’s most vulnerable” in addressing climate change.

Unlike other island nations, such as Barbados and the Maldives, which have little choice but to max-out on climate ambition, the U.K., for now, and for the sake of its global ambitions, needs mainly to show it can orchestrate climate ambition on the global stage – most of the real action happens before or years following an international climate summit (implementation rules to the Paris Agreement were agreed to three years after signing, in 2018). COP26, and the G7 leaders summit in June may therefore be opportunities to show the U.K. merits its self-given title of “Global Britain,” instead of the “post-Brexit Britain” foisted upon it. In Mr. Johnson’s words, it’s time for Britain to “level up,” especially on climate.

No time to waffle in Belgium

In Brussels, the E.U. capital, Kerry met with the Ursula Von de Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans along with the College of the Commissions for which there are twenty-seven. They committed to “renewing” their “strong alliance” on climate change.

Both look forward to the revitalization of the Major Economies Forum founded under the second Bush administration to circumvent “cumbersome” UN climate summits; in 2013, member-countries represented over 80 percent of global emissions. The Obama administration had continued the Forum, but the Trump administration, finding little use for multilateral club on climate, canned it. This prompted China, the E.U., and Canada to organize the Ministerial on Climate Action, the 5th of which is expected to meet next week.

Besides the U.S. and E.U. restating their commitments to achieving climate-neutrality by 2050, E.U. leaders also touted their goal of achieving at least a 55 percent cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. It’s ‘Fit for 55 package’ will see the E.U. revamp “all flagship climate and energy policies” in order to achieve its 2030 target according to E3G, a climate change think tank. Additionally, the E.U. will have the opportunity to codify its “European Green Deal”: its strategy for climate-neutrality.

Under President Biden’s pen, the U.S. has been instructed to develop a “climate finance plan,” though it continues to lack its own national climate plan. Democrats in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have published legislative climate action plans, and there is a growing bi-partisan chorus, notably outside the political arena, for some form of a national climate plan.

Last May, the late George P. Shultz – another former Secretary of State and self-proclaimed conservative – and others described their plan that “situates the United States at the forefront of a clean energy future” and would “speed up and strengthen the United States’ economic recovery.” They added that between “the U.S. and its trading partners…a fundamental paradigm shift is occurring. Climate action and economic growth, far from being mutually exclusive, are not only compatible but also increasingly interdependent”.

The E.U. thinks so, which is why it has required 37 percent of member-states’ Covid-19 recovery plans “contribute to the green transition” in order to access the E.U. recovery fund. It is unclear how proposed “legislation and investments” will be evaluated or how this will affect E.U. recovery fund payouts; the plans are due by the end of April.

Soyez le bienvenue

In Paris, the absence of an official communiqué notwithstanding, France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs (Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères) shared that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Mr. Kerry on Wednesday March 10 discussed the upcoming Leaders Summit as well as how France and the U.S. could cooperate bi-laterally on climate change, biodiversity, and preparation for COP26. Kerry also reportedly met with French President Emmanuel Macron according to Le Monde.

Though it has not been long since France successfully hosted the groundbreaking COP21, climate conditions in the country are not exactly tranquil. In February, a French court ruled that government has failed in its efforts to address climate change – though unprecedented in this context, the citation of ‘Moral prejudice’ is not uncommon. Yesterday, the National Assembly, as part of the “Climate and resilience” bill affirmed its support to amend the French constitution – which if passed in a referendum – would establish the ‘preservation of the environment’ as a pillar of the 5th Republic.

The bill is predicted to face an uphill battle in the Senate where in addition to general opposition, lawmakers disagree on whether the wording of the amendment should be France ‘guarantees,’ as written, or ‘acts’ – or even ‘fights’. Mr. Macron has also been criticized by some for his overpromising of the Citizen’s Convention on Climate’s policy-making role. Besides Covid-19 pandemic recovery, climate change looks set to be a major theme of the 2022 elections.

French politicians, it turns out, are not the only hommes politiques – even those formally, who must mind their words. In an interview with Le Monde on Thursday, Kerry reiterated familiar talking points including how on climate, the U.S. ‘will lead by example,’ though he stressed ­– as Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top diplomatdid weeks prior – that action, more than trust would make the difference in relations going forward.

He also addressed the elephant in the room – not just Republican lawmakers or certain Democrats – but more generally the fear that at any point, a new administration could stymie U.S. progress on climate similar to that between the Obama and Trump administrations. He said that no political leader would be able to reverse global trends on climate action, citing the “billions, even trillions of dollars” in investments globally, multinational companies’ commitments, and U.S. actors at the subnational level who sought to adhere the goals of the Paris Agreement. He added that President Biden’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality in electricity production by 2035 would reinforce this momentum.

On China, Kerry maintained that the U.S. could isolate climate change from other points of contention, such as on human rights – and needs to – because climate change will not be sufficiently addressed without China. He acknowledged that on climate, “China has already done a lot,” and that the U.S. would not “point fingers” at any one country because all were responsible for increasing their climate ambition.

He was asked whether the U.S.’ climate technology would become a “tool” of economic dominance. Members of the European foreign policy community had in February sounded the alarm on an impending geopolitical competition, or as it’s known in the U.S., a “race to the top,” for low-carbon technological supremacy. “China, Russia, the United States, and most other places, powerful interests are far more attentive to the question of who gains and who loses from the profound shifts the green energy transition will produce. Those countries will compete fiercely and not always fairly for any relative advantage,” they wrote.

In their view, the E.U. shouldn’t “separate climate policy from foreign policy” if it hopes to be a global leader “in managing climate change”. On E.U. foreign policy more generally, Mr. Borrell had, in softer terms, expressed a similar sentiment. Despite the issuance of common E.U. debt last year and the legislative promise of the current period, it is not guaranteed that climate change or pandemic recovery will act to solidify the block.

Kerry stated that the benefits of emerging low-carbon technologies would not accrue to one nation but would serve to “resolve the climate crisis”. He noted, wryly, that “Europe is as free to do it as we are”.

Vous avez dit retour?

In the U.S., a central preliminary task for domestic and foreign affairs agencies is to together develop “the most aggressive NDC that we can,” said Gina McCarthy, the administration’s National Climate Advisor – the first NDC committed the U.S. to a 26-28 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2025; the new NDC is excepted to be announced leading up to – or at – the event on April 22 (Earth Day).

With the U.S. having re-entered the Paris Agreement and in anticipation of its new NDC, Kerry’s role will be to build confidence in the U.S.’ ability to deliver results on climateand in his view, also maintain the good will built up during the Obama administration.

“What happened in the United States during the past four years was an aberration, a terrible moment that, I hope and I think, will not be repeated, ” said Kerry in Paris. Though he may have mastered the harp, the question his fellow harp players are asking is this: Will his own orchestra be seated with him at the global ensemble this November?

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