Breaking down Kerry’s climate hypocrisy

September 20, 2022

Yesterday Reuters had a story on Special Envoy on Climate John Kerry’s trip to Africa, with a headline that qualifies as clickbait in international climate policy circles: “U.S. climate envoy Kerry calls on African nations to help curb emissions.” This prompted some angry tweeting, including from our own Director of Policy Brandon Wu

It’s worth breaking down the hypocrisy of these types of statements in some detail though, especially since its likely a preview of what we’ll hear at COP 27 from the U.S.

Kerry was smart to admit upfront that the continent of Africa contributes a very small amount to global emissions. And he’s not wrong that an expansion in fossil fuels, including gas, in Africa is unacceptable for both the climate and for host communities seeing impacts. He’s also correct climate change cannot be solved without every country doing its part. That’s the very logic of the Fair Shares approach that ActionAid has called for both at the UN and in the U.S. Every country is going to need to do their part.

That Kerry is a problematic messenger on this is an understatement. The U.S. isn’t anywhere close to doing its fair share. The current US NDC commits to 50% reductions by 2030, but that’s deeply inadequate compared to the US fair share of 195%. Also worth noting, there aren’t policies in place to actually deliver on that 50% pledge right now. And the big climate victory that the U.S. is going to be showing off at the COP this year (the Inflation Reduction Act) came at the expense of continued leasing for drilling for oil and gas. To have a US government representative lecturing others right now on the need to do their part rankles.

And while every country needs to do their fair share, the US falling short has far more profound consequences, considering the size of our responsibility. Even when evaluating the entire continent of Africa as a whole, it is not at the top list of global emitters. In fact, no African country is in the top ten global emitters and only one (South Africa) appears in the top 20. Kerry argued that the climate doesn’t care where the emissions come from, and while that’s true, it still makes sense that the much larger concentration of emissions would be due much more of the focus.

Finally, there was something pretty important missing from the article: climate finance. Climate finance, both for mitigation and adaptation, is a key part of the infrastructure of the Paris Agreement and a critical part of a fair share approach. While all countries are feeling the impact of climate change, developing countries, who did the least to create the crisis, are getting hit worst and first and need support. Meanwhile, as the world continues to heat, developing countries also need to do far more mitigation than is either fair or feasible to expect. That’s why climate finance has been a key part of international climate negotiations.

As much as the U.S. has fallen short on domestic mitigation, its climate finance contribution has been even worse. Globally, developed countries are late on meeting their $100 billion climate finance commitment (and the vast majority of finance that has been delivered are loans, which will further burden developing countries). The US is also behind its peer countries on climate finance funding and still hasn’t completed a 2014 pledge to the Green Climate Fund, the biggest multilateral funding mechanism for climate change.

Secretary Kerry is not wrong about the major risks and concerns about a natural gas or other fossil fuel expansion in Africa. But perhaps his message would be better received if the U.S. was doing its fair share, especially on climate finance.