John Kerry Says Half of Carbon Cuts Will Come from Tech That We Don't Have

The Climate Envoy also says Americans won't have to give up their hamburgers.

President Biden And Vice President Harris Participate In Virtual Leaders Summit On Climate
President Biden And Vice President Harris Participate In Virtual Leaders Summit On Climate.

Pool/ Getty Images

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, made a number of extraordinary statements in an interview with The BBC’s Andrew Marr that has the climate science community agog. One of them is related to a subject Treehugger has covered often: personal consumption.

Marr asked: "Consumption by the average single American leads to 17.63 tonnes of CO2 every year and that is about three times the average of a Chinese person or 10 times the average of an Indian person. Isn’t the real problem, frankly, that Americans consume too much?"

OXFAM emissions


Kerry sidestepped the issue of what OXFAM calls carbon inequality: how roughly 10% of the world's population (including most Americans) pump out half the carbon dioxide (CO2), and how their emissions actually grew by 60% over the last 25 years. He claims Americans can keep doing what they do, because "it depends on where the energy source is."

Yes, the United States was the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, but the nation is, according to Kerry, "pushing the curve on the discovery of new technologies, whether it’s green hydrogen or whatever, there are a lot of possibilities out there." He added: "Bill Gates is pursuing a small modular next-generation nuclear capacity. We’re going to find our way to zero emissions as fast as possible."

Now, he has a point: We do have the technology to maintain our lifestyle, carbon-free. We can all drive electric pickup trucks built with zero-carbon steel made with green hydrogen and charged with nuclear and solar power. We can all live in net-zero houses with solar shingle roofs and Powerwall batteries. We might even Hyperloop the old North Atlantic air routes, from New York to Gander to Shannon to London. It is a big investment that would have to be made in a hurry to keep the 10% in their current lifestyles.

But hey, as Kerry noted:

"You know, look at what we did to push the creation of vaccines. Look at what we did to go to the moon, look at what we did to invent the internet. We know how to invent and innovate and we’re going to put every effort we have into making this transition happen as fast as possible and I’m not going to join the pessimists who think we’re sitting around waiting for some new technology."

Instead, he is an optimist sitting around waiting for some new technology. When asked why he was "relying very, very heavily on technology to give the answers and yet American consumption is way out of line with the rest of the world," Kerry responded:

"Well, I think there’s a false choice here that you’re presenting people. You don’t have to give up a quality of life to achieve some of the things that we know we have to achieve. That’s the brilliance of some of the things that we know how to do and will do."

Now it may be that Kerry is just reacting to the Gorka Syndrome, knowing Republicans believe former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka when he said: “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” 

Sebastian Gorka
“They want to take your pickup truck. They want to take away your hamburgers.”. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Kerry even does a strong defense of meat, saying new ways of raising and feeding it are around the corner. This is a fight he wants to avoid. That's why he is relying on ecomodernism, the idea that technology will save us—a lot of technology that we don't even have.

"I am told by scientists, not by anybody in politics but by scientists, that 50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net-zero by 2050 or 2045, as soon as we can, 50% of those reductions are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have," Kerry said. "That’s just a reality."

Many Are Skeptical

Some, like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, worry about relying on magical solutions that haven't been invented yet.

Placing hope in the non-existent is not an uncommon position in the United States. Bill Gates certainly shares it, to the point that he doesn't even believe we should bother using the technology we have to reduce our carbon footprint and should instead wait until we have new technology that can eliminate or reverse it.

In his recent book, Gates says we should just skip the 2030 deadline for cutting our emissions in half and go for the brass ring:

"If we think the only thing that matters is reducing emissions by 2030, then this [incremental] approach would be a failure since it might deliver only marginal reductions within a decade. But we’d be setting ourselves up for long-term success. With every breakthrough in generating, storing, and delivering clean electricity, we would march closer and closer to zero."

And who doesn't love and trust Gates these days? He's invested in a company that sucks CO2 out of the air and turns it into calcium carbonate—the stuff that limestone is made of. Climate activist Keith Alexander conjures up this wonderful image.

The problem is that Kerry is in an impossible position. He knows the richest 10% of the world do not want to make the hard choices that have to be made, that they do not want to give much of anything up.

This isn't just an American problem—you see it in all the developed countries. That's why the 2030 targets are fading and the carbon cliff keeps getting steeper: We have spent a third of the window since they were set in 2015 doing essentially nothing.

Cumulative Emissions


This all brings us back to Marr's first question that Kerry ignored about how high the American carbon footprint is compared to someone in India or China. Because this is the big problem of carbon inequality, with the benefits going to the richest 10% and the burdens being borne by the poorest. That's why OXFAM calls for things like "wealth taxes" or "luxury carbon taxes" that would put "carbon sales taxes on SUVs, private jets or superyachts, or levies on business class or frequent flights – and wider progressive carbon pricing to fund, for example, the expansion of universal social services."

It all becomes so political so quickly. Environmental journalist Emily Atkins of Heated thinks Kerry doesn't want Republicans to freak out. Atkins noted: "But Republicans are going to fully freak out no matter what Kerry does or doesn’t say. My take is that it’s a better strategy to be honest with Americans about the sacrifices they might have to make in a race to preserve the future."

But it's not just Republicans; these sacrifices may well be a difficult sell to the vast majority of the 800 million people in the top 10% around the world. This is not left vs right, it is rich vs poor.

No wonder Kerry is relying on technology to save us, what I previously referred to as a form of deus ex machina – god from the machine: "A plot device developed by Aeschylus, who dropped an actor onto the stage with a crane. Merriam-Webster defines it as 'whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence.'"

Because doing what has to be done is just so inconvenient for all the 10 percenters.