The impact of the Russian war on the climate crisis

When John Kerry assumed his role as US climate envoy last year, he approached the job with his usual enthusiasm, traveling the world in a flurry of diplomatic engagements, convincing world leaders that America was indeed “back” – as US President Joe Biden promised and ready to take the lead in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

While his first year as a climate envoy was one of renewal and hope, the second year was more difficult. The latest reports from the UN’s climate science body make it clear that it is now “almost inevitable” that global temperatures will exceed the threshold commonly recognized as the tipping point for climate change. Amid massive blackouts in 2021, China has increased investment in coal, the planet’s most damaging common energy source. Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted oil markets, leading several countries and companies to drill for more oil and gas. And in the United States, progressive proposals on clean energy tax credits remain mired in political wrangling and polarization.

In this context, Kerry seemed less optimistic when I interviewed him for Foreign Policeof the 2022 climate summit than it was this time last year. “We are far behind. And we are not going to catch up,” he told me, a decidedly different message from his more optimistic stance at the 2021 edition of the summit.

When John Kerry assumed his role as US climate envoy last year, he approached the job with his usual enthusiasm, traveling the world in a flurry of diplomatic engagements, convincing world leaders that America was indeed “back” – as US President Joe Biden promised and ready to take the lead in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

While his first year as a climate envoy was one of renewal and hope, the second year was more difficult. The latest reports from the United Nations climate science body make it clear that it is now “almost inevitable“Global temperatures will exceed the threshold commonly recognized as the tipping point for climate change. Amid massive blackouts in 2021, China has increased investment in coal, the planet’s most damaging common energy source. Russia‘s war in Ukraine has disrupted oil markets, leading several countries and companies to drill for more oil and gas. And in the United States, progressive proposals on clean energy tax credits remain mired in political wrangling and polarization.

In this context, Kerry seemed less optimistic when I interviewed him for Foreign Policeof the 2022 climate summit than it was this time last year. “We are far behind. And we’re not going to catch up,” he told me, a decidedly different message from his more optimistic attitude at the 2021 edition of the summit.

All hope is not lost, however. Kerry believes that even if the world has made mistakes, it still has the ability to fix things if it can create the right incentives for the private sector.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ravi Agrawal: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is obviously a humanitarian catastrophe. To what extent is this a setback in terms of the climate crisis?

John Kerry: We don’t quite know yet, as we don’t know how long the effects will last. It has the potential to very seriously disrupt not only climate efforts, but all economic efforts around the world and all efforts to feed people, house them and prepare for the coming winter. The climate has been affected. there is no doubt.

AR: As Russian oil and gas begin to disconnect, partly because of sanctions, partly because of supply issues, the question is what fills this void. And one thing that seems ominous is that as energy prices soar, fossil fuel executives are smelling a business opportunity. They want to drill more, not less. What are we doing about it?

JK: Well, first of all, they wanted to drill more before war broke out. And the answer is yes, many of them, not all of them, decided this was an opportunity. For example, at the CERAWeek that took place in Houston not long ago – which is a gathering of many people from the energy industry around the world – there was supposed to be a very important discussion on the transition to cleaner energy. But instead of a transition-focused discussion, it turned into a discussion about production and how to avoid being held hostage by an oil state that wants to militarize the fuel supply.

We have the latest warnings from the IPCC that tell us unequivocally that we really are at the critical juncture. People are going to have to get a lot more serious than they have been to speed up this transition to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. This remains the imperative now.

AR: The European Union and the United Kingdom have both said they will reduce imports of Russian natural gas. Other countries will also try to use less Russian oil. Let’s say this process takes a few years. But then the question is: what about the developing countries whose needs are increasing? India has increased its purchases of Russian oil at a discount. And there are also other countries that think this is a situation they can take advantage of.

JK: No one will be advantaged by cheating on the requirements we set in Glasgow and Paris before, because we are all in this together. It’s a planet. I mean, it sounds trivial. It’s been said in many different places and in many different ways, but it’s becoming more and more urgent for people to understand whether we’re all getting there together or not.

The reality is that there are several countries that have the ability to move faster to a cleaner energy transition, and they’re just not doing it, because they’re locked into an old paradigm. And we have to break the mould. Our biggest enemy right now is the status quo.

Everyone has a responsibility here to work collegially to bring technology to the table. We work with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to deploy 450 gigawatts of renewable energy. We want to help make that happen. And so we’re ready to bring the technology and the financing to the table to make it happen. I had a team there that worked with them over several visits. Now we are working with Indonesia, with South Africa, with Mexico, with Brazil, we are trying to help these countries to be able to reach the remaining 65%, but they must be ready to try to ensure that it happen. We can’t do it for them.

AR: I remember the last time we spoke, we discussed your relationship with Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy. I imagine a big thing on his mind as China ramps up coal production this year is that they had power outages all through the fall of last year, and that’s a big year for Xi Jinping as he seeks a third term. Tell us about what the discussions with Xie Zhenhua and their team are like right now.

JK: What we have tried to bring to the fore this year to the upper echelons of the Politburo and to President Xi himself – President Xi, by the way, is deeply invested in the climate issue, and he personally makes the key decisions in this what concerns is that there is nothing punitive about what we are trying to do here. What we’re trying to do is work with China to help them see how they don’t have to fear the potential for energy insecurity, that they can make that transition without power cuts, that in working together, we believe we can show their greatest effectiveness. We could show them how their network might be able to manage reductions more effectively. And we’re ready to work with them, especially to help them deploy more renewable energy in a way that could help them shift away from coal more quickly. We think they can do it.

AR: Secretary Kerry, since this is becoming an annual tradition for us, I’m going to ask you the same closing question I asked last year. So, imagine it’s December 31, 2022, and you’re on a hot beach. You like rum punch as much as I do. What does the world have to accomplish for you to sit down and enjoy a drink?

JK: I don’t think I’m going to savor the drink on this particular issue at the end of this year, because we’re late. We are far behind. And we are not going to catch up during this period. The best thing we can do at this point is win the battle to get us on track faster. We could deploy the renewable technology that we have today much faster, to a much greater extent and start reducing emissions, despite Ukraine, despite the pressure that people feel about the supply of oil, gas and fossil fuels. Transitioning from coal or oil to gas alone will help us achieve the goal for the next six to ten years.

We are not on this track yet. Let’s be absolutely clear: we’re heading for well over 2 degrees right now, 2.7 or something like that, but we could drop if we start delivering on the promises that were made in Glasgow any faster.

One thing I really want to point out here is that no country in the world has enough money to do this on its own. No one does, because the UN financial report tells us that we have a deficit of about $2.5 to $4.5 trillion per year for the next 30 years. So you say, well, where in the name of God are we going to find this? The private sector has that money! They need signals from the government. They need to know that the demand is real and that it is going to be implemented, and the private sector is already investing remarkably.

It’s actually an exciting and transformational time where we’re really on the verge of the new industrial revolution, and we saw what happened in the 1850s – with that one, we made mistakes. We heal [those mistakes] now, but we have the capacity to have just as much wealth creation, job creation and just as many benefits for humanity.