Leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies have agreed to tackle “the critical and urgent threat of climate change” but angered activists by offering few concrete commitments to limit global warming.
Wrapping up a summit in Rome, the leaders of the G20 pledged on Sunday to stop funding coal-fired power plants in poor countries, but set no timetable for phasing it out at home.
They agreed to cap the global rise in temperature to 1.5C (2.7F) above the pre-industrial average but made only a vague commitment to seek carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century”.
This was the result of days of tough negotiation among diplomats, and it leaves huge work to be done at the broader United Nations COP26 climate summit in Scotland, which starts this week.
While Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron described the G20 as a success, the outcome disappointed the chief of the UN as well as the leader of the United Kingdom.
Draghi said the declaration went further on climate than any G20 statement before it. He noted that it referred to limiting global warming at the 1.5C threshold that scientists say is vital to avoid disaster.
“We changed the goalposts,” Draghi told reporters.
But UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the G-20’s commitments mere “drops in a rapidly warming ocean”, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres agreed the outcome was not enough.
“While I welcome the #G20′s recommitment to global solutions, I leave Rome with my hopes unfulfilled – but at least they are not buried,” Guterres tweeted. “Onwards to #COP26 in Glasgow.”
The G20, which includes Brazil, China, India, Germany and the United States, represent more than three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the UK had hoped for a “G20 bounce” going into the Glasgow COP26 meeting. Environmentalists and scientists have described the UN conference as the world’s “last best hope” for nailing down commitments to limit the global rise in temperature to 1.5C above the pre-industrial average.
That threshold is what UN experts say must be met to avoid a dramatic acceleration of extreme climate events like droughts, storms and floods, and to reach it, they recommend net-zero emissions should be achieved by 2050.
The stakes are enormous – among them the very survival of low-lying countries, the effect on economic livelihoods the world over and the stability of the global financial system.
The UK pushed hard for a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions, but in the end, the G20 leaders arrived at a compromise to achieve that goal “by or around mid-century,” not a set year.
The US and the European Union have already set 2050 as their deadline for reaching net-zero emissions, while China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are aiming for 2060. The leaders of those three countries did not come to Rome for the summit.
Russia, China ‘didn’t show up’
Before leaving Rome, US President Joe Biden called it “disappointing’ that G20 members Russia and China’ basically didn’t show up” with commitments to address the scourge of climate change ahead of the UN climate conference.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are not expected to attend the conference in Glasgow, although they are sending senior officials to the international COP26 talks.
“The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia … and China basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change. And there’s a reason why people should be disappointed,” Biden said, adding: “I found it disappointing myself.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also signalled he would have liked to see more ambition.
“There’s no question that Canada, along with a number of other countries, would have liked stronger language and stronger commitments on the fight against climate change than others,” he told reporters.
But Italy’s Draghi predicted that nations would keep on improving their plans to lower carbon emissions in the years ahead and added that he was surprised by how far countries like China and Russia had shifted their stance in recent days.
“It is easy to suggest difficult things. It is very, very difficult to actually execute them,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had pushed back at the West’s target date.
“Why do you believe 2050 is some magic figure?” Lavrov asked at a news conference. “If it is an ambition of the European Union, it is the right of other countries also to have ambitions … No one has proven to us or anybody else that 2050 is something everyone must subscribe to.”
Coal, methane and climate financing
The future of coal, a key source of greenhouse gas emissions, also proved one of the most difficult issues on which to find consensus for the G20.
Their final statement included a pledge to halt financing of overseas coal-fired power generation by the end of this year but set no date for phasing out coal power, promising only to do so “as soon as possible”.
The G20 also set no date for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, saying they will aim to do so “over the medium term”.
On methane, which has a more potent but less lasting effect than carbon dioxide on global warming, they diluted their wording from a previous draft that pledged to “strive to reduce our collective methane emissions significantly”.
The final statement just recognises that reducing methane emissions is “one of the quickest, most feasible and most cost-effective ways to limit climate change”.
G20 sources said negotiations were also tough over so-called “climate financing”, which refers to a 2009 pledge by rich nations to provide $100bn per year by 2020 to help developing countries tackle climate change.
They have failed to meet the pledge, generating mistrust and a reluctance among some developing nations to accelerate their emissions reductions.
John Kirton, director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, said the leaders “took only baby steps” in the agreement and did almost nothing new.
He pointed to the agreement to “recall and reaffirm” their overdue commitment to provide $100bn in assistance to poorer countries and to “stress the importance of meeting that goal fully as soon as possible” instead of stating that they were ready to stump up the full amount.
The agreement to end international coal financing “is the one thing that’s specific and real. That one counts,” Kirton said.
Greenpeace Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said the G20 failed to provide the leadership the world needed. “I think it was a betrayal to young people around the world,” she told The Associated Press news agency.