“Implementation Plus: Global Climate Action in 2022”American University Cairo, Cairo, Egypt Monday, February 21, 2022
Good afternoon and thank you, Ambassador Cohen, for that generous introduction and for representing our nation and supporting our staff here in Egypt. Thanks also to President Dallal and everyone at AUC.
At the outset, we know the world is appropriately focused and following the situation in Ukraine, where critical values and countless lives are at stake. Today, I am here to talk about another threat to the planet: our changing climate.
It’s an honor to be here, and to speak from a stage where the great musician Louis Armstrong once played jazz. Just another example of how this institution has led the way for more than a century, including on climate as the first university in the region to track your carbon footprint and at your Center for Applied Research on the Environment and Sustainability. Speaking of leading the way, I’m especially glad we are joined by students in the Tomorrow Leader’s program and young climate leaders of the Ambassador’s Youth Council.
On behalf of President Biden, I bring you all the goodwill of the United States, and a greeting of peace in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and uncertainty: As-Salaam-Alaikum.
It’s really good to be here, some 8 months before Egypt will host COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. I come here now because these 8 months are filled with promise and challenge, and it is imperative we – all of us – do everything in our power to give life to the many commitments of COP26 in Glasgow. We must make these months count for the climate fight with all the passion and energy we can summon. Not because President Biden or I say so – but because scientists around the world are compiling evidence that is screaming at us to protect the planet and act now to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
You are preparing to host delegates and stakeholders from around the world for what is, with no exaggeration, a continuation of one of the most important conversations in the history of human beings.
It is particularly fitting to gather in Egypt, known as the “Mother of the World.” Not far from here, our forebearers established much of early world civilization – embodied not just in physical wonders like the magnificent pyramids but also in innovations and traditions that endure today, including days of 24 hours, years of 365 days, and a world that could be measured with algebra.
This early history is its own monument to human ingenuity, and as the hosts of the next COP this November, Egypt can help us all take the next critical steps to save civilization.
Ancient Egyptians revered the earth– from the sun and the moon, to birds and cats, reeds and serpents and waters – all of it kept holy and sacred.
Still today, many people consider protecting our planet as a matter of faith.
Remember, all of the children of Abraham share in this teaching, as do many spiritual and philosophical traditions. We are instructed through earliest scripture, literature and storytelling, to be stewards of the earth – caretakers.
But there is another principle that unites our ancestors with the modern world: a belief that, as we listen to and learn from one another, we must be honest.
In ancient times, the rising and the setting of the sun was a daily battle between the God Ra and a Giant Serpent – the “enemy of truth and light.”
Today, it is scientists who fight that daily battle to understand and expose the forces that shape our world, from a terrible disease to changes in our climate that now threaten us all.
It is up to us to learn from them and be honest about the reality that, as caretakers, we are falling woefully short.
As Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about scientific discovery, put it: “Science can ascertain what is, but not what should be.”
It’s up to all of us to decide what will be – through our action or inaction.
That’s what the fight to prevent climate devastation boils down to.
It’s the challenge to secure a healthier, cleaner, safer, and less polluted planet while we still can.
As someone who has seen 26 COPs come and go, I know how difficult it can be to find consensus. But I’m an optimist about what we achieved last November in Glasgow – if we build on it.
Almost 200 nations came together and took unprecedented steps in the cause of the climate battle. They resolved to pursue efforts to limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – and agreed that would require reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 45% by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. If we don’t, not only do we blow through that 1.5 degree limit, but we likely will not avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Glasgow produced unprecedented private sector commitments to action. It identified trillions of dollars of investment available for the energy transition, provided we take the right steps to deploy those funds. Provided that governments put in place the incentives, the transparency, and the accountability required to create confidence.
There can be no doubt: We did come out of Glasgow with momentum.
Momentum if countries put commitments into action.
Momentum if outlier countries which haven’t strengthened their commitments do so in the months ahead.
Momentum if the 111 countries that signed a pledge to reduce methane by 30 percent globally actually do so.
Momentum if the private sector follows through on the historic commitments made in Glasgow.
And momentum if the first-ever global consensus on phasing down coal and fossil fuel subsidies actually leads to the biggest energy transformation since the industrial age.
I realize that’s a lot of “ifs.” But momentum is obviously not a guarantee. It is the gift of opportunity. And it’s up to us to make the most of the opportunity.
The job on the road to Sharm el-Sheik and beyond is to turn those “ifs” into imperatives. It’s to turn pledges into proof of concept, and it’s to hold everyone accountable.
And all of this must be done with a much greater sense of urgency than we see today, because we are running out of time to avoid irreversible impacts.
Here is what we know.
We know last year brought us the hottest month humans have ever recorded.
We know this past decade was the hottest in history.
We know the decade before that was the 2nd hottest, and the one before that the 3rd hottest.
We know that in the simplest terms that constitutes a trend, one screaming at us to pay attention.
Often you hear concerns about the costs and difficulties of acting on climate. Consider what we know about the costs of inaction.
We know last year in the United States alone, extreme weather took almost 700 lives and cost more than $145 billion in damages.
We know every year environmentally-induced asthma costs the United States additional billions of dollars, and sends hundreds of thousands of our children to the hospital as well.
We know the sea level rise predicted to occur by the end of the century will now happen in the next 30 years, threatening trillions in damages.
We know pollution choking the atmosphere kills 10 million people globally every year.
We know unprecedented extreme heat kills another 5 million. We know the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet – and the permafrost, which contains an entire Ice Age of methane and carbon dioxide, is alarmingly thawing in Russia, Canada, and across the Arctic Circle.
We know the Antarctic is melting faster than we thought possible. The Thwaites Glacier, known as the “Doomsday Glacier,” has held the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in place for thousands of years. Within five years it could fracture, altering the shape of our world and threatening 250 million people in coastal cities from New York to Shanghai.
We know that climate is already a major driver of migration and displacement, with 30 million people internally displaced in 2020 alone and growing in numbers. We know that climate impacts threaten global security. I was just in Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference, where speaker after speaker acknowledged the “threat multiplier” effect of the climate crisis. I spoke to one leading scientist who said – and I want to quote him directly here – “most worrying is the risk of cascades, that one [climatic] tipping point knocks over the next and starts an unstoppable rise in climate security risks. Greenland is rapidly melting, slowing down the Overturning of heat in the North Atlantic, which pushes the Monsoon further south, causing drought and fire in the Amazon. All triggering extreme climate security threats.”
“In summary,” he said, “the scientific message is that climate-induced security risks will increase in the future. And, that we are, so far, more likely to underestimate the pace and scale of change.”
My friends, we know with certainty that it is human activity causing this, and only human activity can change course.
And we know — thanks to a landmark report the IPCC released four years ago — that to avoid the worst impacts of this crisis, we must limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are already at 1.2.
We also know that some climate impacts are now irreversible. So, the question, at this point, is not whether we can altogether avoid the crisis – it is whether we can avoid the worst consequences. That is the grim choice we have left ourselves because of procrastination, disinformation, greed, indifference, and even lies.
The test ahead of us is not just a political and diplomatic challenge to tame mother nature – it is a test pitting human nature against itself.
So what is it that the science says we must do to address this challenge?
Thanks to science, the mission could not be more clear: We must slash emissions by a minimum of 45% by 2030.
If we do not, it will be near impossible to reach a pollution-neutral planet by midcentury. Barring a miracle, we will blow through 1.5 degrees.
Make no mistake – and nowhere is this more true than on this continent: Every tenth of a degree of temperature rise will matter.
It matters to our ocean, which covers nearly 70% of Earth’s surface and provides food for billions of people. We cannot have a healthy planet without a healthy ocean. And you cannot protect the ocean without addressing the climate crisis.
With a 1.5-degree temperature rise, we may lose much of the world’s coral reefs, small fisheries, and crustaceans, including here in the Red Sea, home to some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity.
With a 2-degree temperature rise, we risk losing all coral reefs and collapse of the entire ocean ecosystem.
At 1.5 degrees, our staple crops – corn, rice, and wheat – will be unpredictable and unstable, especially in places like the Nile River delta and sub-Saharan Africa.
At 2 degrees, many of those crops will wither and die. Tens of millions could starve.
We went to Glasgow with the planet on a potential collision course with a 2.8-degree global rise in temperature. That’s what the science said. We and others were determined to leave Glasgow having kept alive the hope of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.
And we made significant progress. In fact, the International Energy Agency has told us that, if all the commitments at COP26 are implemented, the rise in temperature would be limited to 1.8 degrees.
That’s a reprieve. It’s not a resolution.
But it’s a lot closer to 1.5 degrees than where we were at the beginning of 2021.
And what that tells us is, that if we can bring other countries on board we can win this battle.
So, in 2022 and throughout this decade, what is it that we have to do?
Two words: “Implementation…. PLUS.”
What does this mean? It means delivering on existing commitments, strengthening commitments that are not strong enough, and creating new commitments and efforts where none exist. With respect to nationally determined contributions – or NDCs – countries representing 65% of global gross domestic product have already signed up to targets that keep the promise of 1.5 degrees alive. For those countries, they must now deliver on those commitments. Strong targets must mean strong implementation.
But that leaves thirty five percent of the world’s economy needing to do more to be in line with what science and survival tells us we must do. That’s part of the “plus.”
There are many other commitments that require implementation. The Global Methane Pledge. Declarations in support of zero emissions shipping and ending deforestation. Private sector innovations, including through a First Movers Coalition, where companies accelerate the development of green markets.
These and other dramatic commitments have been made, and there must be serious follow-through. And still much more must be done by everyone if we are to keep 1.5 alive. In international bodies addressing international aviation and maritime transportation. In international financial institutions. In board rooms around the world.
With respect to finance, the developed countries need to make good on the finance goals we set. And we all must not only mobilize the billions – we must succeed in aligning “the trillions” with the Paris goals if we are to keep a safe temperature limit within reach.
“Implementation… PLUS” applies to all countries.
I want to assure you: This is a principle that President Biden is committed to. Just last week, he announced new steps in clean manufacturing—from low-carbon production of the steel and aluminum we need for electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels, to the clean concrete we need to upgrade our transportation infrastructure.
This year, we hope to pass new legislation to invest upwards of half a trillion dollars in our clean energy future, including to make it cheaper for Americans to put solar panels on their roofs and buy electric cars.
And we aren’t alone. Other countries around the world are responding.
Chile is rewriting their Constitution to confront what they call a “climate and ecological emergency.”
Canada raised its 2030 target from 30 percent to fully 40-45 percent by 2030. Now even Alberta, the oil-sands capital of Canada, is closing loopholes and tightening emissions standards.
There are signs of promise almost everywhere, but everywhere, everyone must do more.
And it isn’t just national commitments where actions must match words.
We have to run a sprint to avoid near term tipping points and a marathon to reach mid-century goals to reduce CO2 emissions.
Right now, too many are avoiding the tough choices. Coal use went up 9% in 2021, with another 260 GW in the construction pipeline in China alone – when, according to the IEA, we actually need to be shutting down 870 GW of unabated coal power by 2030.
Meanwhile, some countries are turning to new unabated natural gas as a transition fuel. Burning natural gas produces fewer emissions than coal, but it is mainly composed of methane. Unless fully abated, new natural gas capacity will lock in decades of new emissions when we should all be focusing on deploying abundant and cheap clean energy.
Right now, in too many places, it’s business as usual, with people choosing the path of least resistance. But the path of least resistance is the path of greatest destruction.
We have to break the mold. Nothing excuses business as usual – not given the severity of what we’re facing.
I want to underscore: I understand the economic pressure some countries are under to pursue carbon-intensive energy. I realize that other governments look at industrialized economies like my own and simply want the chance to develop using the same sources of energy we used for decades, before we understood the full weight of those choices. But the reality is, we all share the consequences. We cannot lock-in future emissions by building new infrastructure that will pollute for the next three or four decades, without dramatically scaling up technology that will capture and store all of the greenhouse gases that infrastructure will emit.
But while we consider the long-term, we must also sprint to do what we can today and tomorrow to limit temperature and emissions now, in this decade. It’s called “fast mitigation,” a series of emergency brakes we can apply to prevent warming immediately: we need to tackle methane and other potent greenhouse gases, as well as eliminate deforestation which is killing the very lungs of our planet.
We need strong, rapid, and sustained cuts to methane and other super climate pollutants such as black carbon soot, hydrofluorocarbons, and tropospheric ozone – all of them potent shorter-lived pollutants, many times more powerful than CO2 in their contribution to global warming.
And guess what?
We have a roadmap.
We just need to follow it.
The Global Methane Pledge launched at COP26, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, and several other agreements were all painstakingly written to tackle these very pollutants and end deforestation.
Together, our job is to create the sense of urgency that summons the political will to follow through on the pledges and commitments we have already made — knowing one thing above all: the world will not follow our advice; it will follow our example.
Let me emphasize: That’s particularly true for the major economies of the world – the largest emitters, the United States included. Just 20 countries account for 80 percent of global emissions. What those 20 countries do will largely determine the fate of the planet. So we have to share the burden, working together to ensure every one of those countries has an accelerated transition to net-zero.
One thing is paramount: This transition cannot be achieved without meaningful progress on securing more direct climate finance, including for adaptation, or without aligning trillions of dollars for both mitigation and adaptation through stronger national policies.
Let me add — major financial institutions have already committed to invest trillions of dollars – but that money won’t be deployed without bankable investments. We need research, development, demonstration, and deployment grants from governments, as well as blended finance packages that de-risk these investments. We need angel investment from philanthropists. We need venture debt and equity from venture capital firms. That’s the only way this money will move.
It is imperative that we adequately address the legitimate concerns of less developed and vulnerable countries in the world. Not only must this transition be fast – but it must be done in a way that brings everyone along – in a way that looks out for the most vulnerable. We must – all of us – wrestle with the costs and realities – not just of mitigation, but of adapting to the perils of a warmer world.
Here in Africa, you don’t need a crystal ball to see the urgency. It’s all around you.
Seventeen of the world’s 20 most climate vulnerable countries can be found on this continent. Rising temperatures and less predictable rainfall have already changed growing and planting seasons. Egypt gets 85% of its water from the Nile, and experts warn of a nationwide freshwater shortage by 2025.
How and when we adapt is critical. Adaptation action means reducing vulnerability and strengthening resilience. Or put more bluntly, it means protecting people and their homes, their neighborhoods, and their livelihoods.
The Global Commission on Adaptation found that every dollar invested in adaptation could yield as much as $10 in net benefits.
Here in Africa, with the world’s fastest growing populations and fastest growing economies, adaptation is lives saved – it’s jobs created – and it’s also common sense. Roads, bridges, and ports can only spur economic growth and reduce poverty next year if they are built to survive the storms of tomorrow.
This is part of what we mean when we say there must be a “just transition” that leaves no one behind. A challenge that threatens everyone in the world can be solved in ways that will benefit everyone.
Critical efforts are underway. In Africa, Rwandan farmers are using climate information to make decisions on what to plant and when to plant in the face of increasing temperatures and unpredictable rainfall – and thereby avert loss and livelihoods. Tunisia is protecting its port investments from rising sea levels and increasing flood risks.
In other parts of the world, Jamaica is helping farmers better plan for storms and floods with better irrigation systems. Mexico is funding river basin preservation to protect drinking water for 45 million residents. In India, after deadly heat waves, they’re painting roofs white to reflect more of the sun’s heat and cool homes. These innovations prepare our people for impacts we can no longer avoid.
But these examples must be multiplied and magnified, all around the world.
President Biden’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience – PREPARE – will help empower developing countries and communities to adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change. We need our Congress to come together and help more than half a billion people in developing countries achieve the global goal on adaptation that we all embraced in the Paris Agreement: to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience, and to reduce vulnerability to climate change.
We stand ready to work with all Parties and the Egyptian COP Presidency to ensure that the Glasgow Sharm el-Sheikh Work Program on the Global Goal on Adaptation will accelerate effective action, and to fully operationalize the Santiago Network.
The more capacity we have to adapt and recover more resiliently, the better we will be prepared for these changes. Building and growing that capacity has to be at the core of our efforts.
And let’s be crystal clear: together this year developed countries must make every effort to fulfill our collective goal to mobilize $100 billion annually to help developing countries reduce emissions and confront the impacts of climate change.
Our climate and our atmosphere do not distinguish between emissions from one country or one continent – every ounce of pollution counts the same.
We recognize that many of those living in developing countries are those most at risk – on the front lines of this crisis. We must work with them not only to adapt to climate impacts, but also to seize opportunity in crisis – with green development and clean economies that will bring with them health and prosperity.
We are redoubling our work to develop strong incentives so all countries make the clean energy choice. That’s already happening here in Egypt, where renewable capacity is set to rise almost 70% in the next five years.
But as I said a moment ago, countries representing 35 percent of global GDP do not currently have targets that are aligned with keeping 1.5 alive. Among their ranks are countries of remarkable innovation and ingenuity. Peoples with rich histories of leading the way. Nations that can create jobs and entire economies of tomorrow by making the most of the coming clean energy revolution rather than running from it. Each and every one of them is a place where climate threats couldn’t be more real or imminent, from thawing permafrost to cities where pollution forces children to stay inside, to coral reefs and Amazon forests fast disappearing.
The question is not whether they can be part of the solution; it is how, and when.
We know that the future is cleaner, greener, and healthier – if we can get there together, in time.
And we can.
There’s a reason why in South Africa, Anglo American, the mining company, announced they’re developing a 290-ton demonstration hydrogen-powered truck – because zero emission mining can bring the world the critical minerals needed for the energy transformation.
There’s a reason why Airbnb just announced that 850,000 of its global listings now feature at least one EV charger as an amenity.
There’s a reason why the American renewable energy sector installed 27.7 GW of utility-scale renewable power – the equivalent of almost 30 nuclear plants — and marked $39 billion in investments just last year.
And there’s a reason why the world’s largest professional job networking platform, LinkedIn, says that the fastest attribute employers and workers are seeking everywhere and anywhere, are “green skills.”
A famous criminal was once asked why he robbed banks. He replied: “that’s where the money is.”
Well, the clean-tech revolution is where the money is – and every country on Earth stands to benefit. 2021 was a record-breaking year for climate-tech companies, with more than $165 billion raised. Looking to the future, we’re talking about trillions of dollars aimed at technologies ranging from green hydrogen to battery storage to electrolyzers. Bill Gates is exploring smaller, safer, zero-emission nuclear reactors. A startup in Iceland is turning carbon dioxide into rocks.
In short, the possibilities are limitless and the benefits are endless.
This is not a transition to be feared. It is a transformation to be seized.
Imagine powering this entire campus with solar for a few cents a kilowatt hour. Imagine driving an electric vehicle from here to Sharm on a single charge and recharging in minutes. Imagine a new global economy and countless new jobs and careers as we fully harness the endless and harmless power of the natural world, from the sun to the wind and water.
In one recent year, the fastest growing job in my country was wind turbine tech, and the third fastest growing was solar panel installer. And in every country there are jobs laying transmission lines, building new grids, connecting communities, and designing and building the products of tomorrow.
This is not science fiction. This is the world we can have.
My friends, the jobs, the investments, the opportunity, and the future are in solving the climate crisis – not in prolonging it.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead, rejects what it described as “smallness of imagination, the eye that sees no farther than its own lashes.”
I still believe we can see beyond our own lashes and reach for a future where our planet isn’t burning, but healing.
I still believe we can dream big, that our bravest, boldest imagination can take us far towards a future worth passing down to our children and their children.
Because, in the end, that really is what’s at stake.
Six years ago, I proudly signed the Paris Agreement with my then 2-year-old granddaughter Isabel on my lap. Today, she is an energetic, curious almost 8-year-old. She and my other grandchildren are now old enough to ask questions that deserve answers.
Will they have clean air to breathe as they grow up? Will they be able to see a coral reef, walk through a rainforest, even venture outside safely on a summer evening?
In short, will we have left them a healthy planet on which they – and billions of others – can fulfill their full potential? Will we live up to our most basic responsibility: to leave behind a world better than we found it?
These are questions I’m sure you have as well. It’s time we provide the affirmative answers young people everywhere deserve.
This is the choice we must make in the lead up to COP27.
And put that way, it really is no choice at all. Thank you.