John Kerry on the COP28 Agreement and What Comes Next

The deal 198 nations struck this week to transition away from fossil fuels is “the most important decision since the Paris agreement,” in 2015, John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate change, said Friday.

The global agreement made in Dubai at the annual U.N. climate summit was the first time in the nearly three decades that diplomats have been grappling with climate change that they were willing to name its fundamental culprit: the burning of coal, oil and gas.

After two weeks of hard-fought negotiations in which nations deeply vulnerable to climate disasters were urging a complete “phaseout” of fossil fuels, and major oil exporters led by Saudi Arabia refused to even consider such language, governments landed on a compromise.

The final deal calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels” this decade in a “just, orderly and equitable manner,” while tripling renewable energy like wind and solar power.

“I think ‘transitioning away’ offered certain parties a way to feel like they were being somewhat listened to and that their concerns were being addressed, because there was a drop-dead refusal from several quarters not to accept a phaseout,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview on Friday.

Many island nations criticized the final deal, saying it doesn’t go far enough. But Mr. Kerry said the willingness of countries — even those that are major exporters of oil — to acknowledge that the era of fossil fuels must eventually come to an end underscored the “urgency” of the deal.

“This agreement is the most important decision since the Paris agreement,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the landmark 2015 climate accord. “It rests on the unanimity with which people said we are going to move forward. We’re going to transition away from fossil fuels.”

Not everyone is convinced. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister of Saudi Arabia, said in an interview with Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned television network, that the deal would not affect his country’s ability to sell its crude oil.

Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati oil executive who presided over the climate summit, known as COP28, told The Guardian in an interview that the United Arab Emirates national oil company would also continue to invest in petroleum.

Mr. Kerry insisted those statements do not point to loopholes in the climate agreement.

“Can they sell their crude today, tomorrow, next week, next year?” Mr. Kerry said. “Sure.”

But, he added, “They’re going to, like everybody else, have to transition away from fossil fuels.”

“You can speak with bravado and say, Yeah, we’ll continue to make some investments,” Mr. Kerry said. “But if people do what they’ve pledged to do, this will be a diminishing effort over time. And there’ll be more and more investments going toward renewable, clean energy.”

Mr. Kerry said the fight to control climate change will require confronting the world’s still-rising thirst for oil and gas. In the United States, oil production is surging, and the Biden administration is facing a looming decision over whether to expand its liquefied natural gas exports.

Mr. Kerry noted that the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed last year, pledged to invest $370 billion in clean energy sources over 10 years. It also included incentives to encourage people to drive electric vehicles, put solar panels on roofs and bolster renewable energy efforts across the country.

The transition to renewable energy “isn’t going to happen magically because everybody sits there and does business as usual,” Mr. Kerry said. “The business as usual has to change.”