by Ambassador Robert Blake
People around the world are experiencing first-hand the growing impacts of climate change – more frequent and destructive hurricanes in Florida and the U.S. Gulf coast; devastating floods in Pakistan; accelerated melting of glaciers in the poles and mountain ranges around the world, to name just a few. The science confirms these trends, but the world is still not doing enough to combat climate change.
In this article, I will describe where we are in global efforts to limit global warming; the important role of the private sector in those efforts; the vital role U.S. and other diplomats are playing to catalyze action; and how we might better institutionalize climate diplomacy at the State Department.
Where Are We on Global Efforts?
Negotiators at the Paris climate accord in 2015 for the first time set a goal of limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels in order to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a sobering report on March 20, 2023 assessing that the world is likely to exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius target within a decade from now. The panel concluded that there is a “feasible, but narrow pathway” to avoid the worst effects of climate change if the world can agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 60% by 2035, a very tall order.
After the climate negotiations at the Conference of Parties (COP) in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021, 65 percent of the largest economies of the world had committed to climate targets in line with the 1.5℃ goal. The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that if all commitments made in Glasgow were implemented (admittedly a big “if”), our collective action could limit warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius. After additional commitments at COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh last year, the IEA revised its estimate to 1.7 degrees C. A narrow window remains to make progress, but the world faces many challenges in achieving these reductions.
One is that fossil fuel emissions actually increased by an estimated 1% from 2021 to 2022, according to the Global Carbon Project. Indeed, climate activists were dismayed that the final COP27 text contained no clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.
Another major challenge is implementation. Countries must implement the pledges they make. But a UN report issued before COP 27 noted that only 26 of 193 nations that agreed to climate action plans have actually followed through on their commitments, a dismal record indeed.
All of that said, there are reasons for optimism:
Here in the U.S., we passed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 that marks a historic step toward meeting our goal of reducing emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Likewise, the European Union has a plan to cut emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050.
Late last year, elections in Brazil and Australia brought new climate leaders to power, potentially converting climate laggards to leaders.
Large emitters such as Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt and others strengthened their 2030 targets in 2022.
More broadly, countries across Asia and Latin America are re-evaluating their dependence on imported oil, gas and coal as prices for those energy sources have spiked. Renewable energy is becoming more attractive, both because it is more affordable and because governments can frame domestically sourced renewables to reduce imports, create jobs, and reduce air pollution, a growing priority for middle class families everywhere.
The costs of new energy technologies like green hydrogen and battery storage are falling fast.
150 countries, three-fourths of the world, have now joined us in the Global Methane Pledge to slash global methane emissions (the most potent greenhouse gas) 30 percent by 2030.
Role of Private Sector
The private sector all over the world is coming to the GHG emission reduction table, some because they believe it makes good financial sense; others because they want to be good corporate citizens or face shareholder pressures; some because they face mounting compliance and reporting requirements if they export to the U.S. or the European Union. Here are a few examples of the growing private sector engagement on climate:
2,240 businesses worldwide are part of the Science-based Targets Initiative under which they have set emissions reductions targets consistent with Net Zero 2050 that have been reviewed and validated by independent experts. Thousands more have begun the process.
Industries with carbon footprints that are “hard to abate” such as steel, cement and shipping account for 30% of global emissions. The First Movers Coalition includes 65 companies that have committed $12 billion toward zero-emission efforts. They’re doing this by scaling up new decarbonization technologies and thereby reducing costs.
Global philanthropies are stepping up. One example: the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund have announced an Energy Transition Accelerator to catalyze the $4.2 trillion in private capital they calculate is needed by 2030 to keep 1.5°C within reach, much of that to accelerate the transition from dirty to clean power in developing countries.
Finance: finally, banks and others who manage trillions of dollars came to COP26 and 27 committed to accelerating the clean energy transition. Most of this is under the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, which includes banks and other financial institutions overseeing some $130 trillion in assets.
As a former career American diplomat, I am proud that the United States is working with other partners to play a catalytic role in putting together partnerships to help the world accelerate decarbonization efforts. A recent example of that was the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) that the U.S. and Japan negotiated with Indonesia on behalf of several other nations and six banks to help Indonesia reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. I was privileged to be a part of the team that Secretaries Kerry and Yellen assembled to negotiate this deal with our partners.
Under the agreement, Indonesia committed to:
Peak its power sector emissions by 2030, marking an important step forward from earlier goals;
Establish a goal to reach net zero emissions in the power sector by 2050, advancing Indonesia’s target by ten years, including by accelerating the early retirement of coal-fired power plants;
Accelerate the deployment of renewable energy so that renewable energy generation will constitute at least 34 percent of all power generation by 2030, which would roughly double the total renewables deployment over the course of this decade compared to current plans;
Deliver a just energy transition by developing with relevant stakeholders a plan to identify and support the segments of Indonesia’s population most vulnerable to potential negative impacts of the transition, primarily those earning a living in jobs connected with the coal industry.
In return, JETP partners committed to mobilize an initial $20 billion in public and private financing over a three-to-five-year period, using a mix of grants, concessional loans, market-rate loans, guarantees, and private investments. This will include $10 billion from governments and $10 billion in private investments from banks, including Bank of America, Citi, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Macquarie, MUFG, and Standard Chartered. The partnership will also leverage the expertise and resources of the multilateral development banks, particularly the Asian Development Bank.
US Climate Diplomacy: Need for Greater Institutionalization of Climate Diplomacy at the State Department
The U.S. has been very fortunate to have John Kerry lead our global climate diplomacy for the last two years under President Biden. He brings an unrivaled network of personal relationships with Presidents, Ministers and business leaders; deep experience on climate from his time as Secretary of State; and a real passion for the task.
My experience working for Secretary Kerry and as a Foreign Service Officer for 31 years tells me that, while the State Department has made progress in developing its climate capabilities, there remains much to do. Let me highlight three areas that merit focus:
1. Create a new climate bureau at State
Until Kerry’s appointment, the responsibility for climate diplomacy resided in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, known by its acronym OES. Kerry assembled a fantastic parallel team staffed mostly by climate experts from outside State to staff his efforts.
But the U.S. and the world will not have the benefit of Secretary Kerry’s peerless leadership forever, and it is difficult to see who else can match his deep diplomatic and climate experience.
Indeed, as the volume of climate work expands to manage the growing tasks of mitigating climate risks and helping countries adapt to those risks, it makes sense to create a separate climate bureau at State, as former Ambassador and acting OES A/S Ken Brill has argued. OES already has its hands full coordinating U.S. government work to protect our oceans, stop illegal fishing, manage the growing pandemic and other health threats, and a host of other international environmental issues.
2. Develop a career climate track and improve training for Foreign Service Officers
A new climate bureau could secund talent from the talented career civil servants in OES, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the wealth of expertise in our national laboratories. But we also need to develop a career climate track at State so Foreign Service Officers have the incentive to develop climate expertise, with the knowledge that good jobs will be available to them at all levels.
My own experience may be instructive. After graduating from college, I worked for two years at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the leading environmental groups in the U.S., and then while in graduate school had an internship with the World Resources Institute. Despite my long interest in and commitment to environmental work, I never worked in OES, because there was no clear promotion ladder for Foreign Service Officers in that area.
But I did what I could when the opportunity presented itself. While serving as Ambassador to Indonesia, I led an effort to convince the largest palm oil companies in Indonesia, who had been responsible for much of the deforestation in Indonesia over the previous two decades, to sign on to a pledge whereby they committed to stop clearing all primary forests and all peatlands and to plant new palm oil tracts only on previously degraded lands.
We worked closely with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and importantly gave them full public credit in order to avoid accusations that the U.S. was dictating to Indonesia what it should do. Partly as a result of our efforts, the World Resources Institute and others have documented that deforestation rates have fallen steadily over the past 6 years in Indonesia, one of the few countries that can make that claim. For all you aspiring diplomats, this was a good example of the U.S. using its convening power to work with the private sector to help a country make important progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Expanding the climate diplomacy budget.
Last but not least, we need to work with Congress to increase the climate diplomacy budget, which last year amounted to a total of $11 billion for our work across the entire world, spread in a patchwork of budgets across multiple agencies such as USAID, the Development Finance Corporation, and other agencies. Many of these budgets are subject to Congressional earmarks that limit the flexibility of how these funds can be used. As my Indonesian example shows, the U.S. has unique convening power around the world, but our diplomats need higher budgets and more and better trained officers and support staff to carry out the rapidly growing efforts that will be needed and to catalyze the financial contributions of other stakeholders, who will be more likely contribute if they know the U.S. government has committed its own resources.
Amb. Robert O. Blake, Jr., is a Senior Managing Director at McLarty Associates, a pioneer in the field of private sector diplomacy, helping clients manage policy and government issues around the world. Amb. Blake served for 31 years in the State Department in a wide range of leadership positions. In 2021, he served as Senior Advisor to Special Envoy for Climate Kerry to help conclude a $20 billion deal to accelerate the decarbonization of Indonesia’s economy. From 2013-2016, he served as the US Ambassador to Indonesia, where he focused on building stronger business and educational ties between the US and Indonesia, while also developing cooperation to help Indonesia reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2009, he was nominated by President Obama to be Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, serving from 2009-2013, for which he was awarded the State Department’s Distinguished Service Award. From 2006-2009, he served concurrently as US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Prior to that, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission in India from 2003-2006, where he was named the worldwide DCM of the Year by the State Department. He also serves on the Global Leadership Council of the World Resources Institute and the National Committee of the World Wildlife Fund.