“I’m excited about the prospect for the future,” said Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, who took to the virtual stage during the opening ceremony and answered a range of questions posed by Panama’s Deputy Energy Secretary, Rosilena Lindo.
During the more than 20-minute exchange—which Lindo described at the end as “bringing climate enthusiasm to the table”—Kerry touched on topics as diverse as the power of youth activism, the importance of getting the world’s methane emissions under control, and the need for the private sector to play a leading role on the climate issue. He pointed to progress made at last year’s global climate conference in Glasgow while acknowledging the work ahead to make the energy transition a reality.
“The fact is, we’re not moving fast enough yet, we’re not reducing emissions enough, and there’s too much coal-fired power around the world still. We’ve got to transition faster,” Kerry said. “But,” he added, “I think people are increasingly seized of this issue. There are literally trillions of dollars beginning to move, to invest in new technologies that can help us achieve this.”
The entire world has a stake in picking up the pace and becoming more serious about reducing emissions to keep the warming of the planet in check, according to the longtime U.S. Senator and seasoned diplomat, who served as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. “Our biggest enemy in this effort is the status quo, and we have to push back against it and look at the opportunities and make the most of them,” he said.
“I think people should fundamentally believe in the human spirit, in the human capacity” to bring about the changes that are required, Kerry said. “While we know there’s a crisis, we also know how to respond to it, and what we need to do is come together and make sure that happens.”
Here are a few of his other comments on selected topics:
Climate and jobs—Some people will need help navigating the energy transition and finding a way to move into new types of jobs, Kerry said, but the investment and innovation happening in this sector will lead to promising opportunities. “There will be millions of jobs created in this transformation, so I don’t think it’s something any of us need to be scared of,” he said.
The private sector—Given the scope of the task at hand, the private sector will play an essential role. “No government in the world has enough money to be able to put into the investing necessary to bring green hydrogen online or to push the curve of discovery on battery storage or to do carbon capture and to actually make that come to scale at an affordable rate. We need investment.”
Financial institutions and venture capital firms are starting to accelerate investment in climate action, said Kerry, who noted that the six largest U.S. banks have committed to invest around $5 trillion in the energy transition.
“There’s a new future in front of us, a new energy future,” Kerry said, one with clean power, clean transportation, clean lakes and streams, a healthier environment. “But we can’t get there without the private sector at the table, investing, exploring new technologies, doing the research and development, putting it into deployment, doing the full-score, up-to-scale development. That’s going to be, frankly, a lot of energy that gets generated from the marketplace itself, and we need to look on the private sector as capable partners in this effort.”
Of course, not everyone wants to come on board, he said. “There are people with big vested interests who do not want to move as fast as we need to move, and so we’re all going to have to keep pushing.” It’s up to governments to put the kinds of incentives and regulatory structures in place that will drive demand and private sector investment, he said.
Methane ambition—Long-lasting CO2 emissions tend to get much of the attention on the climate issue, but the effects of methane emissions are even more damaging in the shorter term, Kerry said. A new initiative launched in Glasgow in November aims to cut global methane emissions by 30% by the year 2030.
“When we achieve that,” Kerry said, “it is the equivalent of taking every automobile in the world, every truck in the world, every airplane in the world, every ship in the world, and you’re bringing them all to zero emissions in that period of time. It’s a gigantic gain if we reduce methane.”
RELAC—Kerry praised this new regional initiative (the acronym stands for Renewable Energy in Latin America and the Caribbean), in which a growing number countries—15 so far—are pledging to generate at least 70% of their electricity from renewable energy by 2030. “It’s a collective effort, and we strongly encourage others to join,” Kerry said.
Youth energy—Kerry knows firsthand the power of young people to move an issue forward. During the conversation with Lindo, he recalled his own youthful days as an activist marching for the environment, the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, and voting rights.
Today, he said, the world’s youth are driving the climate change movement. “It’s young people who kind of woke everybody up and shook the political establishment and said, ‘You’d better get your act together.’
“All they’re asking is for adults to behave like adults and make decisions based on facts, on science, and that’s exactly what President [Joe] Biden is going to remain committed to doing,” Kerry said. He urged young people to get involved in the climate issue, talk to their peers, organize, even run for office.
“We are blessed in the Americas to be mostly democracies, and we need to guarantee that we’re going to exercise the rights of democracy,” he said. “Democracy is not an automatic pilot operation. You have to keep fighting for it, you have to keep working for it, you have to make it work for you.”