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John Kerry plans to meet with Biden to discuss his future as climate envoy

On Wednesday, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said he had "no plans" to step down but would not say if he would continue representing the country in future climate talks.Peter Dejong/Associated Press

John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, was evasive when discussing his future Wednesday, saying he had “no plans” to step down, but he would not say if he hoped to continue to represent the country in future global climate talks.

Speaking from his Massachusetts home in his first interview since the United Nations climate summit last month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Kerry said he intended to talk with Biden next week “about the road ahead.”

The midpoint in any administration is frequently a time of churn. Kerry’s domestic counterpart, Gina McCarthy, left her position in September. As Republicans prepare to take control of the House next month, several have expressed an interest in investigating Kerry’s office. An October report in Axios indicated that Kerry was considering taking a position in the private sector.

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Kerry, 78, said he was making no moves for the time being. “I’ve made no plans other than to try to complete the task,” he said.

Kerry led the US delegation at the climate summit in Egypt, where nearly 200 nations agreed for the first time to create a fund to help poor countries that are experiencing irreversible losses from climate change.

For years, the United States and European countries, among the biggest sources of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, have blocked the idea of paying into a fund to help poor countries that are struggling with the effects of climate change. But at the November talks, the Europeans and Americans signed onto the idea, which Kerry called a “humanitarian effort” and “morally correct.”

Kerry also maintained that progress had been made in tackling the fundamental cause of climate change: the burning of fossil fuels. He called the summit “a success,” noting new emissions targets put forward by some of the world’s leading economies, including Indonesia and Mexico, as well as fresh pledges around curbing methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

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But his assessment is a stark contrast to the open disappointment voiced by many of his counterparts in Europe who said governments fell short on ambition. The nearly 200 nations represented at the summit could not agree on a final statement calling for the phasing down of fossil fuels, language that was blocked by Saudi Arabia, according to negotiators.

The final text also referred to the use of “low-emission” technologies to slash emissions, a term many environmental activists said they fear could be used as a loophole to protect future investments in gas projects.

Kerry noted that the International Energy Agency had assessed the new pledges and found that, if countries made good, the planet would warm by an average of about 1.7 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. Scientists have said that warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius will significantly increase the likelihood of climate catastrophes. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius.

While 1.7 degrees Celsius crashes through the 1.5 degree guardrail, it is better than the 2.7 degree rise that scientists projected after nations made their first climate pledges as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Still, Kerry said countries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases, such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, needed to set more ambitious goals to reduce their carbon emissions.

“The entire world has to pick up the pace way beyond what it is today. We are woefully falling short,” Kerry said. “It’s entirely within the possibility that we can achieve our goals. It’s also entirely possible that we will fail because not enough countries are joining in the effort at this point in time.”

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Kerry tested positive for COVID-19 in the final days of the climate talks in Egypt and was confined to his hotel room. He said he spent much of that time on the phone with his counterparts as well as with António Gutteres, the United Nations secretary-general. Members of his team could be seen at various points during the final evening holding up a phone to show Kerry on video.

He described the experience as “disappointing” but insisted that his physical absence had not been a handicap. Yet Kerry’s diagnosis upended discussions with China, which had only restarted mid-summit after a meeting between Biden and President Xi Jinping thawed months of frozen relations.

“We’re going to meet again,” Kerry said of his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua. “We’re in touch to figure out the where and when, but we are very anxious to continue the conversation.”

One looming discussion will be around which countries will be expected to contribute to the new climate fund for vulnerable nations. China is considered a developing country in the UN climate system and does not want to contribute money in the same way as wealthier, developed nations may be obligated.

China is currently the world’s top polluting country, while the United States is the nation that has pumped the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since industrialization.

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Republicans have attacked the plan as “climate reparations” and assailed the idea that US tax dollars could end up in a fund that could benefit China, its chief economic rival, because it is categorized as a developing nation.

Kerry noted that the language agreed upon in Egypt did not specify which nations would contribute to the fund or be on the receiving end. And he said the language addressing the fund clearly said it would not be considered compensation, something he called an “unacceptable concept.”