March 2, 2022

“We can make improbable things happen”: Mr. John Kerry on Solving the Climate Crisis and Securing a Clean Energy Future

March 2, 2022

The U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change delivered remarks while visiting Fulbright University Vietnam on February 25, 2022. 

It was in 2016 that Mr. John Kerry, the then U.S. Secretary of State, presided over the official launching ceremony of Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. A continuation from the success of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, which was founded in 1995 and bore the fruits of Kerry’s dedicated efforts to bring Vietnam and the United States closer through education cooperation, the university represents “a future that was not defined by war, but defined by learning, knowledge, and lessons that we can pass on to other generations,” as reiterated by Mr. Kerry during his recent visit to Fulbright’s Crescent Campus. 

The event was part of Mr. Kerry’s four-day visit to Vietnam, from February 22 to 25, 2022, as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change. “What brings me to Vietnam, right now, is that the government of Vietnam made an important commitment in Glasgow [COP26] about achieving net-zero emissions by 2050,” he said. “This is a very important discussion we need to have now. This is something scientists have been telling us […] in simple mathematics and physics, that we need to reduce emissions by 45% between now and 2030. And 2050 is not achievable unless you do what you have to do now. That is the guidepost.”

A cleaner, safer, healthier world for future generations

At COP26, nearly 200 nations reached a climate agreement to accelerate efforts to limit the earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in a “critical decade” that requires reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 45% to reach net zero around mid-century. “What we did was create the framework for that resolution, and got more commitments from more countries and more private sector entities than ever in history,” said Mr. Kerry, as he reflected the coming together of countries representing 65% of global GDP, with respect to nationally determined contributions. “But that also means that 35% did not. So we still have to bring those countries on board. Because we believe there are possibilities for huge transitions here.”

Citing Vietnam’s remarkable renewable resources from wind to solar to hydropower, especially with Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces as magnets for clean energy projects, Mr. Kerry emphasized the country’s potential to make a coal-to-clean transition that will create jobs, reduce pollution, and help Vietnam “keep the lead that you have shown in these last years about how to build a vibrant economy and how to improve the life of people”. “I promise you, the building of this new clean energy future is providing for future generations a cleaner, safer, healthier world in which to live, where we have not the destruction of species, but genuine sustainability.”

As a result of this momentous global efforts to combat climate change, according to Mr. Kerry, there will be enormous demand for new skills across all spectrum of work, be it the demand for engineers, architects, designers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, or pipefitters to develop clean grids and build energy-efficient buildings. “I know because I’ve seen it first-hand in my own state in Massachusetts, and across our country. The fastest growing jobs in America are wind-turbine service technicians. And the third fastest growing jobs in America are solar panel installers. It’s happening, folks.”

During his exchange with Fulbright students, Mr. Kerry encouraged the young people of Vietnam to take the time to understand what they’re passionate about, to enjoy the fruits of being young, as well as the benefits of a great education. “In today’s world, you don’t have to pick one career,” he said. “In today’s world, you can go out there and have any number of things you wind up doing. Pick the things that excite you, and do what makes you happy in life.”  

“Green from the Beginning” – The public-private partnership at Fulbright

At the event, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change also made a special announcement that USAID is going to provide Fulbright up to $16.5 million over the next 3 years, adding to the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) previous commitment of $37 million, to further the university’s future development. 

In 2017, the then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. Government’s development finance institution, presented a letter of interest to Fulbright University Vietnam to support the design and construction of the university’s main campus. Since then, Fulbright is honored to have received generous financial commitments from private philanthropists all over the world, the U.S. development agencies, and the support of the Vietnamese government by donating a 15 hectare parcel of land in the Saigon High-Tech Park, to build its flagship campus in Ho Chi Minh City, the first phase of which will be completed in 2023. 

In her opening remarks, Fulbright President Dam Bich Thuy laid out the university’s vision of a green campus that will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty and the interested public: committed to net-zero emission, it is built in adherence to LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system, and LOTUS, the Vietnam Green Building Council certification. 

“This campus will be the most environmentally advanced education complex ever built in Vietnam, demonstrating our commitment to solutions that mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said President Thuy. “This is a goal embodied not only by our investment in eco-friendly infrastructure, but also in everything we do, from teaching and research initiatives to policy advising to encouraging green projects from our community members.” 

The joint efforts from the public and private sectors between the two nations to invest in Fulbright, and thus, the future of Vietnam and its transition to renewable energy, were commended by Mr. Kerry as an extraordinary milestone that proves “you can make improbable things happen”, and that “green from the beginning” is something achievable even for a young institution like Fulbright. “This university is a monument to the ability of people to overcome dark times, and find the best [in ourselves], which is educating young people for the future,” Mr. Kerry said, reflecting on the positive changes he had witnessed during his many visits to Vietnam.

Mr. John Kerry: “I’m fighting for Plan A”

Talking to Fulbright students and distinguished guests of the university, Mr. Kerry stressed exciting opportunities for investment and development of green technologies. With examples of commitments made by corporations such as General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Tesla, he underlined the American private sector’s support of their government towards a carbon-free future, and trillions of dollars from the global finance industry to invest in efforts to tackle climate change.   

“So that tells you a story about the marketplace, and where people are betting on the future,” he said. 

But how to get that money deployed is an important question Mr. Kerry expounded: “It’s not giveaway money. It’s investment money. So you have to create bankable projects. Governments need to work with philanthropies and bring multilateral development banks to the table to de-risk the investments. What really makes a difference is the investment money that has to be put on the table in order to buy the equipment, build the factory, pay the workers initially when there’s no revenue, get the business up and running – that is where the private sector is going to be.” 

In response to a question posed by Mr. Le Hong Minh, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of VNG, as well as one of the inaugural members of Fulbright’s Founders Circle, on whether or not there is a Plan B in the likelihood that the world fails to reach targets to combat climate change, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change asserted: “Frankly, I don’t sit around thinking about Plan B, because I’m fighting for Plan A.”

“Europe has set the target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. The U.S.: 50 to 52% cut. UK: 68%. Canada: 45 to 50%. South Korea and Japan are about the same,” he said. “But let me remind you, just 20 countries account for 80% of global emissions. If we can get to 1.5 degrees without a bunch of countries, the possibilities of what we can get done are actually much bigger than that. We can win this battle if everybody gets on board and becomes a part of it. Now can we move fast enough? I believe we can.”

Bao Quyen

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