DAVOS, Switzerland -- John Kerry, America's top official on climate change, said Tuesday that the U.S. and China were making progress on putting together a group from both countries to work toward quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In an interview with The Associated Press during the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Kerry said the two nations, the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, were close to agreeing on the structure of the group and how decisions would be made.
“We are going to work on the practicalities of how we move faster” to reduce emissions, said Kerry. “Maybe we can help with technology of some kind to help China move faster. Maybe China could help us better understand some things we could do better.”
The agreement was reached during the U.N. climate summit last year in Glasgow, Scotland. For the first time, China agreed to crackdown on methane leaks, a highly potent greenhouse gas. On Tuesday, Kerry said that reducing coal consumption would also be a central area of focus for the group.
The progress report came as government officials, corporate leaders and other elites at the World Economic Forum grappled with how to confront climate change and its devastating effects. A central question was: to what extent can oil and gas companies be part of a transition to lower-carbon fuels?
In different times the question could have been academic, the kind of thing critics of the forum, which takes place in a tony ski village in the Swiss Alps, would say had no relevance to the real world. But today, the question is both practical and urgent, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced many countries that depended on Russian oil and gas to make swift changes to energy supplies.
The debate comes as examples of acutely felt impacts of climate change multiply, including recent heat waves in Southeast Asia to flooding in parts of South America. Meanwhile, the world’s top climate scientists have repeatedly warned that increased investment in fossil fuels are hurting chances to keep warming to limit warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F), and thus avoid even more devastating effects.
Kerry, Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, and several European officials argued Tuesday that the war in Ukraine should not be used as an excuse to lose focus on renewable energy goals.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned the 27-nation bloc should never again become dependent on untrustworthy countries, like it did with fossil fuels from Russia, as it moves toward a greener economy.
She said the “economies of the future” will no longer rely on oil and coal, but rather the green and digital transitions will rely on other materials like lithium, silicon metal or rare earth permanent magnets which are required for batteries, chips, electric vehicles or wind turbines.
“We must avoid falling into the same trap as with oil and gas," she said. "We should not replace old dependencies with new ones.”
Von der Leyen added that the war in Ukraine has strengthened Europe’s determination to get rid of Russian fossil fuels rapidly. EU countries have approved an embargo on coal imports from Russia but member countries have yet to find a deal on sanctions on Russia's oil and gas.
Attendees in Davos this week were also discussing several other high-priority issues, like the Russia-Ukraine war, the threat of rising hunger worldwide, inequality and persistent health crises.
That included Turkey’s pushback to Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said at Davos that a delegation from his country and Sweden will travel to the Turkish capital Wednesday for talks.
Both Haavisto and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in separate comments at the gathering that they believe they can overcome Turkey’s concerns about what it sees as Finland’s and Sweden’s support for groups it considers terrorists.
“We have to do what we always do in NATO, and that is to sit down and address concerns when allies express concerns,” Stoltenberg said.
But even in discussions of those issues, climate change was often ever present, as was the tension over what role oil and gas companies may play in a transition to green energy. Davos represented one of the biggest platforms to discuss climate change ahead of the next U.N. climate summit in Egypt in November.
Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental Petroleum a major oil company, said that oil and gas industries had a central role to play in the transition to renewable energy.
Instead of talk about moving away from fossil fuels, Hollub said the focus should be on making fossil fuels cleaner by reducing emissions. She said Occidental had invested heavily in wind and solar energy and planned to build the largest direct air capture facility in the world in the Permian Basin. Direct air capture is a process that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and buries it deep in the ground.
“The U.S. can provide ample resources to the rest of the world. However, it’s becoming more and more difficult to do that because of the fact that we are getting a lot of headwinds,” she said on Monday. “One is the belief that we can end the use of oil and gas sooner rather than later.”
Joe Manchin, a U.S. senator from West Virginia who has opposed a major bill on climate change proposed by President Joe Biden, said Monday that fossil fuels were key to ensure energy security, and America had the resources to help ensure such security for the world.
“We can't do it by abandoning the fossil fuel industry,” said Manchin, a Democrat, adding that no transition could take place until alternatives were fully in place.
Many energy experts argue that viable alternatives are already in place. For example, the cost of wind and solar have come down considerably in recent decades while efficiencies of both have dramatically increased. At the same time, other more nascent technologies have promise but need massive investment to develop.
Kerry, in the interview, said he was still hopeful that climate change legislation in Congress was still possible. There is no sign of progress, or even any movement, by the Biden administration.
"When you are a legislator, hope springs eternal," said Kerry. “You always are working to try to get the votes to make something happen.”
When asked whether he planned to step down soon, as some have speculated because Congress is clearly stalled on climate legislation, Kerry said no.
“Nobody is going to be in one job forever, are they?” Kerry asked. “But I'm not planning to move on. I'm working toward the COP (in Egypt) and we'll see what happens.”
Associated Press journalists Kelvin Chan and Jamey Keaten in Davos, Dana Beltaji in London and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.
Peter Prengaman is The Associated Press' global climate and environment news director and can be followed at: twitter.com/peterprengaman
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