New York

19 February 2021

Transcript of remarks to UNA-USA’s Global Engagement Summit, marking the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement - with Q&A

Let me begin by thanking the UN Foundation and the United Nations Association of the United States.

You are a force multiplier: educating, advocating and mobilizing for global cooperation, and advancing shared values to take on our many challenges. 

Day after day, you work for change and inspire hope. 

Today is a day of hope, as the United States officially rejoins the Paris Agreement. 

This is good news for the United States — and for the world.

It is a pleasure to mark this occasion with you all, and particularly with Special Envoy John Kerry, whose own work is reflected in this historic agreement.

For the past four years, the absence of a key player created a gap in the Paris Agreement; a missing link that weakened the whole.

So today, as we mark the United States re-entry into this treaty, we also recognize its restoration, in its entirety, as its creators intended.

Welcome back.

The Paris Agreement is an historic achievement. But the commitments made so far are not enough. And even those commitments made in Paris are not being met.

The warning signs are everywhere.

The six years since 2015 have been the six hottest years on record.

Carbon dioxide levels are at record highs. Fires, floods and other extreme weather events are getting worse, in every region.

If we don’t change course, we could face a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees this century.

This year, 2021, is pivotal.

COP26 in Glasgow will be a make it or break it occasion. Governments will take decisions that will determine the future of people and planet.

The United States, together with all members of the G20, has a decisive role in delivering our three main objectives.

First, the long-term vision.

A central objective for the United Nations this year is to create a truly global coalition for net zero emissions by 2050.

In the past year, countries representing 70 percent of the world economy and 65 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions committed to net zero.

I hope that the United [States] will formally join this coalition very soon, as pledged by President Biden, and will present its concrete plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Second, delivering a decade of transformation.

The science is clear: we need exponential progress on reducing emissions now.

We expect all governments to present more ambitious concrete and credible Nationally Determined Contributions for the next ten years, by COP26 in November.

I commend all the American states, cities, businesses and financial institutions that have shown impressive leadership since 2015 by committing to the goals of the Paris Agreement through the “We are still in” declaration.

We rely on the United States to build on this with an ambitious and credible Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030, aligned with President Biden’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions before 2050.

Third, the actions we need now.

The recovery from the pandemic is an opportunity to rebuild stronger and better.

To do that, we must invest in a green economy that will help to heal the planet and its people, and create well-paying, stable jobs to ensure more equitable and sustainable prosperity.

Now is the time to implement transformative change:

Phase out coal.

Support a just transition, with training and opportunities for people whose jobs will be impacted.

Stop investing in fossil fuel projects that ruin people’s health, destroy biodiversity and contribute to the climate catastrophe.

Shift the tax burden from income to carbon; from consumers to polluters.

We also need to close the finance gap by supporting countries that are suffering the ravaging impacts of the climate crisis.

That support must reach the countries and people who are most impacted. Women and girls bear the brunt of the climate crisis; fully eighty percent of those displaced by climate change are women. 

I urge all G7 countries to deliver concrete results on finance at their summit in June. Those that have not done so already must commit to doubling their climate finance. All developed countries must honour the pledge to contribute $100 billion annually to developing countries. 

I am also asking all donors to commit to increasing the share of climate finance allocated to adaptation, to reach 50 percent.

And I ask all financial institutions and banks to align their investments with the Paris Agreement by 2024.

I count on the United States, together with all other G20 members, to rally behind these three main objectives and to engage in the international negotiations that will be needed for success at COP26.

When Special Envoy John Kerry signed the Paris Agreement in 2016, he brought his granddaughter to the United Nations with him.

We cannot be together today, but we can all reflect on our responsibilities to future generations.

The Paris Agreement is our pact with our descendants and the whole human family.

This is the race of our lifetimes. We must go much faster, and much farther.

It is within our power to build a future of renewable energy and green infrastructure that protects people and planet and ensures prosperity for all.

Let’s get to work.

Thank you.


Amb. Elizabeth Cousens, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation: 

Thank you Mr. Secretary-General. I now have the great pleasure of introducing one of America’s most distinguished public servants and statesman, one of the fiercest and determined champions of protecting the planet and its people, and someone for whom I had the pleasure personally of working. 

Former Secretary of State John Kerry is now the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. A role that will be absolutely pivotal in this year and coming years in the reassertion of U.S. climate leadership and in our collective fight for a healthy, fair and sustainable future. 

Special Envoy Kerry, the floor is yours. 


U.S Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, the Honorable John F. Kerry

Well, Madam Ambassador, Elizabeth, thank you so much for the introduction, the generous introduction.

Thanks for your tremendous work, what you're doing at the UN Foundation, and what you've always done and I greatly, greatly appreciate your stewardship.

My former Senate colleague Tim Wirth, and one of the Senators I traveled with to Rio for the very first Earth Summit, has invested years in making the Foundation the extraordinary leader that it is, and did so at the very start of the fight on climate. And I know you have invested really enormous leadership now at a time when we have to finish the job.

Thank you also for letting me poach mightily from the UN Foundation’s expertise as we built our team in the Biden Administration. I've been able to rob from you, so I owe you, deeply. 

I'm also delighted to be with everybody, but particularly my friend and a great leader, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. And I'm delighted to mark this important day with him. 

I think every word he said, I completely agree with and I hope all of you do. He has been tireless in running around the world and helping to energize people to focus on the enormous challenge that we face. 

And I thank him for reminding me, and perhaps some of you, of the presence of my granddaughter when I signed the Paris Agreement at the United Nations. And I will share with you all that when I finished, my granddaughter was on my knee and I took her back and handed her to her mother. And my granddaughter turned to both her mother and me and said, “Mommy I no sign paper!” 

So I owe my granddaughter a new piece of paper to sign, if you get the drift.

The United Nations Association has always been a leading edge advocate for the most principled, pragmatic, multilateral cooperation here and around the world. It's been obviously tested over the last four years. And in the course of the test of the last four years, the Association's membership has stood up and fought hard. And that's in the great tradition of course of an early champion, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Alone we cannot keep the peace of the world, but, in cooperation with others, we have to achieve security.”

She couldn't be more right, and the same could be said and should be said about climate change. I really, I think we have to end the word “climate change” and own up to the fact it is the “climate crisis” now. And that's why President Biden submitted the paperwork to immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement, as soon as he could, hours after he was sworn in.

Today as you heard and as you know, it is absolutely official: The United States is, once again, a party to the Paris Agreement. And I'm proud and pleased with that fact but it also places on us a special responsibility.

We rejoin the international climate effort with humility and with ambition. Humility knowing that we lost four years during which America was absent from the table. And humility in knowing that today no country and no continent is getting the job done.

But also with ambition, knowing that Paris alone will not do what science tells us we must do together. At the COP in November, this November, when we go to Glasgow, all nations

must raise our sights, must raise ambition together, or we will all fail together.

Needless to say for all of us here partaking in this, in this moment failure is not an option. And that's why raising the ambition is so vitally important. According to the most recent statistics, and you've heard Antonio talk about the evidence that we're seeing in various parts of the world, but we know from the measurements, from the statistics, from the science that emissions, globally, rose over the years since Paris.

2020 saw a drop in global emissions due to Covid, but already they’re again on the rise. And many analysts expect a very quick rebound to where we were, rising even more unless

very stringent policies are put in place.

So to be on track, to keep even a 66 percent probability of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, to do that we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030.

So that means we need to phase out coal five times faster than we have been.

We need to increase tree cover five times faster. We need to ramp up renewable energy six times faster. We need to transition to electric vehicles at a rate 22 times faster. You get the drift? 

Everything has to be done with a greater sense of urgency, with the determination that we have to win this fight. Can we do that? Can we win it? 

Absolutely, my friends, we can. We need the United States and every country to determine they will get on a path toward net zero emissions by 2050.  That is not something we will do by 

by countries just stepping up and saying, “Hey! We commit, here we are. Yeah, we'll do it by 2050.”  

That doesn't work. That doesn’t cut it. That is not the way that we get to go to Glasgow.  We go to Glasgow, all of us, being real about exactly what we need to do starting now. What steps will we take in the next 10 years? And the truth is that everybody has to do that. China, which is the largest emitter in the world, needs to be part of the 2020 to 2030 effort.

India needs to be part of it. Russia needs to be part of it. Japan, all the big emitting countries of the world, the major emitters, 17 nations need to really step up and begin to lower those emissions.

This challenge means that all countries, setting bold and achievable targets, have to do so here at home, and in the course of their Declaration of their National Determined Contributions, their NDCs. 

We have to drive investment toward climate solutions and innovations, in resilience. We need to get the entire world on a path towards net zero emissions, and we need to absolutely make certain that happens no later than 2050 and sooner, if possible. 

Ultimately, keeping alive the possibility of limiting the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees celsius is critical because we now know that anything more than that will have catastrophic implications around the globe.

So my friends, we have to make every month count, every day count, on the road to the UN Climate Conference, COP 26, this November in Glasgow. It is the Leaders Summit that we're going to hold on April 22nd, that we believe will be an important opportunity to begin to put the down payments on the table, to advance the work of Glasgow. 

And we're planning to take advantage of every opportunity we have in the coming months, including the G7, the G20, the Arctic Council, as well as the UN General Assembly, and other UN opportunities. 

So this is a packed year. This is the most important year in many ways. We're all in and we're deeply grateful to have a strong partner in Secretary-General Guterres.

I will say to you that after many years of doing this, going back to Jim Hansen and his first announcements to us in Congress in 1988 that climate was happening, that climate was changing. From then until today, I've been to many, many of these meetings as many

of you have. I believe that Glasgow is our last best hope to get the world to pony up, to deliver, to get us on a safer path to determine that we will do the things necessary in the next decade to keep alive the prospect of limiting the Earth's temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and we will keep alive, in fact, create a better vision, for what we can do by 2050 with net zero.

That is what we intend to do as we head to Glasgow. And I hope every single one of you will be hand-in-hand with us, as you were during the last four years to keep us in the Paris Agreement, even though we had a president who got out.  

The majority of Americans are committed to this task. so let's get the job done.

Thank you very much.



Amb. Elizabeth Cousens: 

Thank you so much Special Envoy Kerry for the powerful call to action to make every day count. We’ll now be taking questions from our UNA audience. 

Let me give the floor first to Himaja Nagireddy of UNA Harvard. Himaja, the floor is yours.

Himaja Nagireddy: 

Thank you so much Ambassador Cousens, and I'm honored to be here.

My question is: Young people are among the most concerned and outspoken about the climate emergency as well as the crisis caused by COVID-19, including the impact on youth employment and education. What action is needed to green the economy and boost decent jobs for youth? 

Amb. Elizabeth Cousens: 

Thank you, Himaja. Let me introduce next, Thomas Liu of the UNA National Capital Area. Thomas.

Thomas Liu:

Thank you Ambassador Cousens.

Hello, and thank you for allowing me to pose a question.

So the world is still moving the wrong direction to achieve the Paris goal of 1.5. Is this still realistic to think we can do it given all the obstacles and how will we win over the opponents and naysayers? Thank you.

Amb. Elizabeth Cousens: 

Terrific. Thank you Himaja and Thomas both of you. Let me turn first to the Secretary-General to respond.


First of all, the good news about jobs is that the green economy is much more of a job creator than the brown economy of the past.

If we invest in renewable energy, if you invest in greening our transportation system, if we invest in greening our agriculture, if we invest in greening all the areas of our economy, we will be creating lots of jobs. 

And most of those jobs will benefit young people that have access to the new technologies, that have access to the technologies of the 21st century. 

But we need at the same time to look into a just transition.

We need to make sure that we look at those that will lose their jobs because their activities will phase out as it is the case already for many other reasons because of the technology evolution. 

And we need to invest in the training of these people, young people and adults.

We need to make sure that we support the regions that will be impacted.

So with the strong boost that the green economy will give to job creation, and with governments paying particular attention to a just transition to support the people and the regions that will be negatively impacted by the phase out of some of the brown economy activities, I think we will be in a condition that will be highly favorable for the young generations. 

And then I mean, is it possible? Of course it is possible. But for it to be possible we need to do exactly what John Kerry just said.

For the United States what the Europeans have announced in relation to their own National Determined Contributions for 2030.

We need a drastic reduction in emissions in the next decade. 

We need to get to Net Zero in 2050. 

And the scientific community has told us that if the two things are achieved, we will be able to keep the temperature below 1.5 degrees of growth at the end of the century.

So the science tells us it is possible.

We need the political will, the determination, the enthusiasm to make things happen.

And so I would say I'm not optimistic. I am determined. 

And we all must be determined to make it happen and to make it happen together.

Amb. Elizabeth Cousens: 

Well, thank you.

Mr. Secretary-General as always for your determination and now to Special Envoy Kerry for your response to our questioners.

Special Envoy Kerry: 

Well, I agree.

I agree with António.

I think the Secretary-General has laid it out very clearly, but let me add a couple of things to it if I may.

What is the cause of the climate crisis? 

The cause of the climate crisis is bad energy choices. Bad energy policy. 

Energy policy is the controlling factor here. And also nature-based choices that we make. There are nature based solutions. But the biggest most important thing we have to do is make better energy choices.

Now, there are millions of people around the planet already doing that. 

Solar is growing at the faster rate than anything else. Coal plants are now no longer financeable in many parts of the world.

One of the things we have to do is stop financing coal and begin to transition to the cleaner energy possibilities. 

Massive amount of money is beginning to move into the technology, innovation, and discovery that can produce new products and new techniques by which we can deal. 

For instance, if we can get battery storage that has 25 days or 30 days, this problem is greatly resolved in many ways. Because then we have the intermittent lack of wind or lack of sun or lack of water to be able to be made up for by the storage. 

And then the baseload, as it’s called, for companies, factories, to be able to continue to work at night when the sun isn't shining or when the wind isn't blowing you begin to have an assurance about the ability to keep your economy moving.

That is absolutely doable. Many people are now pursuing hydrogen economy. And hydrogen, if we can make it green, that does not have this huge energy intensity that creates the hydrogen, if we can get it a green produced hydrogen, it's going to be a game changer all around the world.

But the big thing we have to do is have the determination by countries. Particularly the major emitting nations of the world.

I mean just think about this. Europe is about 14% of emissions, the United States is 15%, China is 30%. You're already over 50% of all of the emissions and you just have three entities.

No wonder some people in the world are angry about what is happening right now. 

So those countries must step up. 

And what's so important to understand, and the Secretary-General just referred to it, this is the biggest market the world has ever known. And it is a market in which investments will earn money. 

If you're building new cars, electric vehicles, people will buy them. You're going to have more electricity demand. 
Therefore if you produce more electricity, clean, people will make money in those new power plants.

So the fact is that companies around the world are suddenly waking up to the fact, this is not something that requires expenditure. It requires investment. And there can be a return on that investment that actually finances many of these new projects.

So I'm as excited as the Secretary-General is. 

This could be the greatest economic transformation for the positive side. Creation of millions of new jobs. It’s unbelievable -- raise in the quality of life, when we have less particulates in the air, less cancer, less emphysema, less asthma for children. 

We have greater security in our nations because we're not threatened to go to war over the guarding and safe providing of energy sources.

So the world will be better off with this transition and it is now absolutely certain in every model that it is more expensive, we will pay more tax payer money around the world, if we don't do this now, than if we do it.

It's less expensive to -- in fact -- to respond to the climate crisis. 

Amb. Elizabeth Cousens: 

Thank you so much Special Envoy Kerry and for Secretary-General to you both our deepest gratitude for your leadership, absolutely for your determination, for your inspiration, the challenge that you posed to us all and to the work ahead in which we all stand ready to join you.  

You have also given us the most compelling and momentous way to begin this year’s Global Engagement Summit so we thank you for that too.