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John Kerry defends progress in Glasgow: 'Change is happening'

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GLASGOW, Scotland — One week into the U.N. Climate Change Conference, John Kerry, President Biden's special envoy for climate, said Friday that “what’s happening here is far from business as usual," and that the commitments made by the world's nations so far signaled that "change is happening." 

"There is a greater sense of urgency," Kerry said at a press conference at this year's Conference of the Parties, otherwise known as COP26. "There's a greater sense of focus, and I have never, in the first few days of any of the COPs I've been to, counted as many initiatives and as much real money — real money — being put on the table, even as there are some question marks."

Noting that the Biden administration had agreed to donate $11.4 billion for climate financing, Kerry also pointed to Japan's pledge of $10 billion over the next five years and said the conference had helped secure over $100 billion overall for 2022.

"There's a genuine progress here," he said in a hoarse voice, adding, "Here at this COP, in every corner of this COP, every day, initiatives are being put forward, countries are signing on the dotted line."

Kerry, the Biden administration's point person at the conference, has attended dozens of meetings over the past few days and granted interviews with at least that many news organizations, highlighting the fact that many of the world's leading economies had committed to ambitious cuts of greenhouse gas emissions before the Glasgow conference even began. He said the world's 20 richest nations now have plans on the table that could go beyond holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. 

"Today, a majority of the G20 have real plans that they have laid out, included in their NDCs [nationally determined contributions] that will keep 1.5 degrees alive, if every aspect of those plans is pursued. That's a game changer, way beyond what many people thought was possible." 

John Kerry.
John Kerry speaks at a news conference during COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Friday. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

According to an analysis by the International Energy Agency, Kerry said, "if you take the current level of where we are in terms of NDCs combined with the initiatives on the table, the money that is on the table, we would be at 1.8 degrees." If true, that figure would represent a significant drop in the projected warming based on proposals to cut emissions. Ahead of COP26, existing pledges were predicted to have led to 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming. 

"I was surprised when I heard that," Kerry said, adding that the calculation had been confirmed by other groups. 

The overall goal of the conference, keeping temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of rise, was still attainable, Kerry said, though there was still much to be decided at the conference in the coming week. 

"In the end, I can't tell you exactly what the decision will be next week," he said, adding, "but we are striving to make certain that this is a strong statement and implementable." 

Kerry conceded, however, that "we're not there" in terms of the ultimate goal of curbing rising temperatures, but hailed commitments made to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and to end deforestation by the same year. 

As though addressing the youth protesters who swarmed the streets of Glasgow on Friday to demand swifter action to address the climate crisis, Kerry said, "What is happening here is far from business as usual."

"We're doing what democracies and the democratic process, a global multilateral system, does, which is bring people together and find a way forward," he added. 

Yet Kerry also acknowledged that he understood the frustrations of the protesters outside the conference that agreements made inside its walls were far from a guarantee that they would be put into practice. As a veteran of climate negotiations, Kerry likely knows better than to overstate certainty that pledges are all it takes to fight climate change. 

“The words don’t mean enough unless they’re implemented,” he said. 

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