If there were a Mount Rushmore for climate diplomats, John Kerry’s face would probably be on it.

A US politician, White House cabinet member and diplomat – he’s shaped a decade of international climate politics.

As US Secretary of State in 2015, he played a key role negotiating the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. Later under President Joe Biden, he helped bring the US back into that agreement after it withdrew under former US President Donald Trump. And Kerry championed the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest green investment in US history.

But he has truly left his mark over the past three years as Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, criss-crossing the world to push global leaders onto a greener path.

At last year’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai, Kerry helped shepherd a landmark deal across the line. Although it disappointed many, it’s the first to agree to transition away from fossil fuels.

Now, as he prepares to leave his role as Biden’s climate envoy this spring, he spoke to the BBC’s Christian Fraser for an exit interview of sorts.

How does he see the world now compared with three years ago?

“It is in a better place, even though it seems chaotic to everybody,” Kerry says. “But when I took the job, we were heading towards 3.7C to 4C [6.7F to 7.2F] of warming on the planet. Now we’re heading towards about 2.5C [4.5F]. And we have succeeded, I think globally, in raising the ambition of countries around the world.”


US Climate Envoy John Kerry with his Chinese counterpart

US Climate Envoy John Kerry with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua at COP28 – Dubai, 2023

Part of the reason for that success is his intense diplomacy to bring the world’s two biggest polluters – the US and China – to the negotiating table at a time when the two nations were barely on speaking terms.

Kerry used his close relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, to get both nations to work towards tripling renewable energy globally by 2030 and reducing methane emissions. (Read the story on BBC News.)

“If we’re not cooperating with China, we don’t get there,” Kerry says. “Everybody’s got to come to the table.”

Not everyone is satisfied with the climate legislation he has helped mould, or with Kerry’s America-first domestic agenda, which favours US companies for green investment – all while the US has become the world’s biggest oil and gas exporter.

So, why wouldn’t he commit the US to a stricter phase-out of all fossil fuels?

“Look, you can’t just stop it tomorrow,” Kerry says. “People have to get to work, kids go to school […] you can’t just turn it off. What people want to see is the legitimacy of the transition.”

Year of change

Kerry also knows well that meaningful international climate action depends on domestic politics. Half the world’s population heads to the polls in 2024. And many of those elections – including a presidential vote in the United States – could alter the pace of progress.

If Trump, who has pledged to undo much of President Biden’s climate agenda, wins a second term in office, what would that mean for the planet?

“When [Trump] was president last time, 75% of the new electricity that came online in the United States came from renewables. Why? Because 37 governors in the United States – Republican and Democrat alike – live under renewable portfolio laws, they have to be moving towards renewables. And they did.”

For Kerry, the transition to a clean energy economy is just an all-important matter of time. “We will become a low-carbon global economy,” he says. “But the only issue is, will we do this in time to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis? And that’s not at all certain.”

Watch Christian Fraser’s full interview with John Kerry here.

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Tags: China Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua, US climate envoy John Kerry