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G7 and G20 Contributions to Mitigating Climate Change — Then and Now

Ella Kokotsis, Director of Accountability for the G7 and G20 Research Groups
December 1, 2015

Although initially created in 1975 as an informal gathering to discuss world issues largely dominated by the oil crisis, the G7 immediately assumed a leadership role on issues related to energy and climate change. At their first summit gathering in France over 40 years ago, G7 leaders declared "our common interests require that we continue to cooperate in order to reduce our dependence on imported energy through conservation and the development of alternative sources." Four years later, meeting in Tokyo in 1979, they took up the issue of carbon emissions directly, calling for "alternative sources of energy" that would "help prevent further pollution" caused by carbon and sulphur emissions. Through this voluntary consensus, the G7 acknowledged the need to halt the concentration of toxic atmospheric emissions, thereby demonstrating both their ability and willingness to move forward with clear and ambitious carbon-controlling environmental principles.

Over its 40-year history, the G7 has often taken ambitious and preventive steps to control the effects of a changing global climate. Producing more than 320 discrete climate and energy-related commitments since its inception, compliance with these commitments has generally fared above average relative to other international issues addressed by summit leaders.

The G7 summit's role in governing global climate change has, however, evolved over three distinct phases. From 1979 to 1988, the G7 created the first, environmentally oriented climate regime by setting an immediate timetable to establish zero increases in carbon emissions and calling on all other relevant carbon-polluting powers to meet this goal.

In the second phase, from 1988 to 2004, the G8, now with Russia added, shifted to shape and support the emerging United Nations regime centred in the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto Protocol, placing issues of economic development rather than the environment at the apex of its political agenda.

The third phase, from 2005 to 14, saw the G8 — and the new G20 summit — respond to the failure of the UN's approach by returning to global leadership with a now expanded regime that placed the environment first and broadened its membership to include all major carbon-producing powers, led by China and the United States. This regime has been increasingly effective, both in reducing summit members' overall emissions and in slowly influencing the UN to shape its post-Kyoto regime in a similar way.

Emerging onto the scene in response to the global financial crisis in 2008, G20 leaders began almost immediately to integrate energy and the economy and link it directly with environmental and climate concerns, through various innovative initiatives promoting low-carbon development strategies in order to optimise the potential for green growth. Building on this energy-climate link, the G20 has, at almost every summit since 2008, stressed the need for improved energy efficiency and better access to clean technologies, while drawing on commitments to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsides that encourage wasteful consumption. The first ever G20 climate finance group was established at the 2012 Los Cabos Summit, charged with considering ways to mobilise resources to help developing economies take a more climate-friendly path.

U.S. president Barack Obama used the occasion of the G20's 2014 Brisbane Summit to announce his plan to spearhead a $3 billion campaign for the Green Climate Fund, encouraging his summit partners to follow suit. It was also at Brisbane that the G20 reiterated its intent to adopt a protocol, with legal force, applicable to all parties meeting in Paris for the 21st Conference to the Parties (COP21) in 2015. Here, the G20 also encouraged any parties that were ready to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) in advance of COP21 to do so. Since then, every G20 member, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, has submitted its INDC to the UNFCCC secretariat. As COP21 gets under way, the coming days in Paris will reveal if the collective commitments of the G7 and G20, embedded within their respective INDCs, will be enough to create a credible path forward in tackling the potentially irreversible consequences of a rapidly changing global climate.

For further information, see John Kirton and Ella Kokotsis, The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

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Ella KokotsisElla Kokotsis is the Director of Accountability for the G7 and G8 Research Group and the G20 Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. An expert on summit accountability and compliance, she has consulted with the Canadian government's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations on their African development agenda, with the Russian government on global health issues in the lead-up to the 2006 St. Petersburg Summit, and with the Government of Canada on numerous summit-related issues during the 2010 Canadian G8 and G20 Summits. Her scholarly methodology for assessing compliance continues as the basis for the annual accountability reports produced by the G8 and G20 Research Groups. She is author of Keeping International Commitments: Compliance, Credibility and the G7 Summits and co-author of The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as many articles and chapters. She leads the group's work on climate change, energy and accountability.

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