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Climate change: Ukraine shouldn’t ‘become an excuse’ to pollute, John Kerry says

Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry joins Yahoo Finance at the Davos World Economic Forum to discuss climate change initiatives companies are putting forth, the Russia-Ukraine conflict impacting European energy markets, nuclear energy, and the EV space.

Video transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: The schedule change makes for a very different backdrop for Davos this year, as the usual snow-capped mountains are anything but. Climate change, though, is the primary focus, and that puts former Secretary of State John Kerry at the center of the conversation. The secretary spoke with our editor-in-chief Andy Serwer about their agenda.

JOHN KERRY: Well, we are talking to the folks about new initiatives. We created a number of months ago an entity called the First Mover Coalition. And we have major-- we had 35 major corporations from around the world who have decided to be leaders in creating a demand signal by opening up markets more rapidly through making their own commitments to make purchases or to behave in a certain way.

For instance, Maersk Shipping, largest container shipper in the world, has agreed the next eight ships they build are going to be carbon-free. Volvo and others have decided to step up and say 10% of the steel they buy is going to be green steel. You have major airlines, United, Delta, Boeing, and Salesforce, and Apple have all agreed that whatever flying operations those particular companies engage in, they will buy 5% sustainable aviation fuel, 85% reduction in emissions.

So there are a whole lot of things like that that individual companies, banks, major financial institutions, and others-- and we'll have some important announcements about the new things that they're going to be doing and in new sectors.

ANDY SERWER: That's a lot of stuff with a lot of big name companies, Mr. Secretary. Do you personally get involved in the discussions with them about doing these types of things?

JOHN KERRY: Absolutely, and we have a terrific team of people. We're doing this in cooperation with the World Economic Forum. We announced it last year, actually. Been working on it for some period of time. But these chief executives, these CEOs really deserve the credit. They're stepping up. They understand the urgency.

And they've decided they're going to be leaders in helping to send the demand signals necessary to change behavior. So we've got folks working on aluminum and shipping and steel and concrete. And, you know, it's major-- these have been the hard to do things. But we're moving into that sector and getting things done.

ANDY SERWER: Shifting gears a little bit here, obviously, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is front and center. And I want to ask you how that's impacting climate because there's a lot of talk about Europeans turning to coal as a stopgap measure in lieu of Russian gas. What's your take on that?

JOHN KERRY: Well, coal is the dirtiest fuel there is, no matter what, if it's unabated. And most of it is not mitigated or abated. So that's a problem, but they're not-- Europe's big lesson out of this is that they want to be energy independent. And they're going to move far more rapidly to get off of Russian gas to separate themselves and to deploy the renewable base of their grid so that they can be free from the emissions and from petrol dictators who weaponize energy.

So I think the end product could be very salutary. But you've got to avoid building out major long-term infrastructure that doesn't mitigate, that doesn't capture emissions and deal with the problem of the climate crisis. So you can't allow Ukraine to become an excuse for people to do things they wanted to do anyway, which is continue to simply produce the way they've been producing. And that's what we've got to avoid.

ANDY SERWER: Is nuclear part of that equation for you in terms of being able to shift away from oil and gas?

JOHN KERRY: The answer is, for President Biden, absolutely. He has kept nuclear on the table. It's a very important ingredient. Bill Gates is building a new design of a nuclear plant in Wyoming now and has put his own money into that effort, together with some federal money. There's another nuclear plant being explored and built out demonstration in Idaho at the National Laboratory.

MIT is doing work on small container-sized nuclear battery. There's a tremendous amount of research effort. And France is doubling down on nuclear. The UK is looking at nuclear. A lot of other countries have decided that they just can't get to net zero 2050 without the use of a zero emissions current technology capacity. And so, yes, nuclear will be part of that mix.

ANDY SERWER: As a former secretary of state and now the envoy for climate, this type of environment seems to match both of your experiences or skill sets. Is it sort of unique in that sense?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I'm not sure what you exactly mean by that.

ANDY SERWER: Well, in that geopolitics and energy seem to be mixed and conflated in a way.

JOHN KERRY: Well, they always have been.

ANDY SERWER: OK.

JOHN KERRY: It's just, it has been without the focus that exists today on the climate crisis, which comes from emissions. I mean, this is not complicated. It's basic mathematics and physics. Certain things are happening because human beings are choosing to provide for their power or their transportation by combustion, by burning fossil fuel. And if you don't lower the emissions, those emissions create a blanket, which warms-- goes up in the atmosphere, warms the planet.

And there isn't anybody I know today who doesn't admit that the planet is warming and that life has changed as a result of this. If we want to stop spending literally hundreds of billions of dollars-- and over a long period of time, we've spent trillions of dollars just cleaning up after worst storms every year, after floods, after fires, after drought, after-- I mean, at some point, human nature has traditionally proven pretty apt at discerning a trend. And this trend is pretty obvious.

The climate crisis is getting worse, not better. And we have to much more rapidly be reducing emissions and taking the steps, not that politicians are saying we should do, but that scientists, whose lives are dedicated to determining the mathematics and the physics of this particular challenge.

ANDY SERWER: And most business leaders seem to be on board as well at this point.

JOHN KERRY: It's unbelievable what's happening. The private sector is really moving. And yes, there's a gigantic shift, with the private sector taking the lead in many places. And that's all kinds of private sector institutions. And by the way, some fossil fuel companies are now working very hard to become energy companies and transition to producing electricity and doing it in a clean way, either through hydrogen or nuclear or in other ways.

So this is not something that leaves the world without options that work for our economy. In fact, this is perhaps one of the greatest economic opportunities we've ever faced. Not-- potentially much larger than the Industrial Revolution because we have to build out new energy grids. We're building out now new vehicles. Ford Motor Company and General Motors have both said they're going to have only electric vehicles by 2035. So those companies are moving because the marketplace is moving, and they know we have to do that.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, I was going to ask, you hadn't mentioned EVs. But is that something under your purview as well? Do you talk to Tesla and Elon Musk? And do you talk to people in Detroit about that?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I talked to them about the overall impact. But by and large, that falls into the domestic hat, which Gina McCarthy and her team have been working on. And they've done a terrific job. I mean, these companies have made their own decisions, though. They're led by thoughtful, visionary folks who are looking down the road, and they recognize that if we are going to meet our goals with respect to climate, we have to have an all-- you know, everything has to be part of the solution-- agriculture, shipping, buildings, transportation, manufacturing.

We all have to look at the ways we can reduce the emissions, which, by the way, are pollution. And 15 million people die every year because of the impacts of that pollution in the atmosphere. So the common sense thing to do is what we began to do years ago-- clean up the air, not allow pollution to be dominating the impacts on our lives. And so, we have to get back to that. And there's a lot of money to be made in producing the goods, in defining the new technologies, bringing them to market, bringing them to scale.

And that's what a lot of venture capitalists and investment entities are now realizing. And they're moving there. The market is moving and will move in this direction. We will get to-- I'm absolutely convinced we will get to a low carbon, no carbon economy at some point in time. The challenge is, will we get there in time to heed the warnings of the scientists and avoid the worst consequences of the crisis?

DAVE BRIGGS: All right, that's former Secretary of State John Kerry there, with our Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer. He talks about the market moving. Tesla right now down almost 7% today and down 47% year to date. We'll have much more from Davos all week long, Seana.

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