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Inside John Kerry’s shadow diplomacy on climate change

John Kerry plugging a smokestack with his finger
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Former Secretary of State John Kerry is speaking publicly for the first time about a new chapter in his half-century history with Vietnam: an initiative aiming to get the country off coal-fired power.

Driving the news: In an exclusive interview with Axios last week, Kerry laid out the broad parameters of a proposal he says would enable the nation to get off coal by financing renewables — and become a model for the rest of Asia, which is heavily dependent on coal.

He’s been working on this since he left government, and he has enlisted the help of former Vice President Al Gore, who made a trip to Vietnam last summer. Kerry is meeting Vietnamese government officials this week in Boston to negotiate details.

“I’m trying to put together a model project of how Vietnam can get off coal now, and we are working very hard to help them see that coal is in fact more expensive and has many, many more downsides.”
— Former Secretary of State John Kerry

The big picture: Vietnam, like the rest of Asia, is where the world’s battle over growing economies and worsening climate change is raging. These nations want cheap power —usually coal — to provide a better standard of living for their growing populations. Yet they're under political pressure to back away from coal, given that their heavy use of it is accelerating global warming and worsening local air pollution.

Flashback: Kerry’s history in climate change diplomacy and Vietnam run deep.

  • He was a leading architect of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — which will proceed without the United States, as President Trump has vowed to withdraw from it.
  • He was a decorated officer in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and worked toward normalizing relations with the nation decades later.

By the numbers: Coal became Vietnam’s biggest electricity source in 2018, surpassing hydropower for the first time, according to preliminary numbers by the International Energy Agency.

  • More than 42,000 megawatts of new coal capacity are under development, according to a recently released report by environmental groups.
  • For context, that’s nearly one-fifth of America’s entire operating coal capacity.
  • Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, account for the world’s fastest-growing coal demand growth through 2023, according to the IEA.
  • Some of the coal plants planned for Vietnam have been shelved, but the current trajectory — up and fast — still holds.
  • Vietnam also faces near-term challenges from the impacts of climate change itself, especially rising seas. Studies show much of Ho Chi Minh City will be vulnerable to flooding in coming decades.

Where it stands: Kerry’s proposal includes undisclosed private-sector financing for wind and solar along with transmission lines. It also calls for more efficiently using Vietnam’s hydropower and tapping into a domestic natural gas field.

  • A spokesperson for the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington didn't have a comment on its government meetings with Kerry.
  • Kerry said making the financing work is essential to counter coal plants being cheaply backed by Chinese banks and built by Chinese companies.
  • “The Chinese have been very busy talking out one side of their mouth — they’re talking about their role and leadership, yet also growing coal in these other countries,” Kerry said.
  • The Chinese embassy in Washington didn't respond to a request for comment.

Kerry’s quest is running headfirst into a power-hungry region. The 330 million people in the United States consume twice as much electricity as the 2 billion people living in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, according to IEA expert Carlos Fernández Alvarez. “That’s 6 times less people consuming more than double the electricity,” he said.

  • In America where power demand is stagnant, wind and solar can make up the difference, Alvarez said. But, he added: “When you have electricity growth, even if you have wind and solar, electricity demand grows more than this, so you need something else. This something else in many cases, in Asia, is coal.”

The intrigue: Experts and former diplomats say Kerry’s interaction with the Vietnamese is not too unusual, but the stakes are higher here given the players involved.

“If Kerry can put forward proposals that help Vietnam achieve its energy access goals, and if they do it in a way that makes sense for them and reduces emissions, that’s good for everyone,” said George David Banks, a former top official in the Trump administration who worked at the State Department under George W. Bush.

What’s next: Kerry’s meeting in Boston with a Vietnamese delegation, where he hopes to inch closer to an official deal. “We’ve opened the door. We’ve got a preliminary agreement. We now need to work on the feasibility for how exactly it’s going to be implemented, and then sign it.”

  • Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s State Department is holding a closed-door meeting Friday with Vietnamese officials about its energy sector. A spokesman declined to comment on its specific focus.