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The Revival of the G7 Environment Ministers' Meeting

Brittaney Warren, Researcher, G7 Research Group
May 18, 2016

Environment ministers from the G8 systemically significant states met most years between 1992 — the year of the Rio Earth Summit, which catapulted the environmental commons onto the international stage — and 2009. Those meetings covered an extensive environmental agenda that set principles and made commitments on issues as specific as children's environmental health (1997) and biodiversity (2007) and on broader ones that overlap with other issue areas, notably energy and climate change and their relationship to security, gender and inequality. G8 ministerial attention to all these issues abruptly and without explanation stopped in 2009, the same year that the environment and climate change made a central appearance on the G20 agenda with its promise to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies in the medium term.

On May 15-16, 2016, the G7 environment ministers (now without Russia) broke the seven-year hiatus. They met at Toyama in Japan to reaffirm old commitments and create new ones to protect and adapt to a rapidly warming world and changing natural environment. On the second day of their meeting, the ministers released a lengthy communiqué and an annex on material cycles that included a table highlighting the positive actions taken by G7 members on reducing, reusing and recycling. These "3Rs" dominated the discussion, appearing in eight paragraphs in the ministers' statement and in six of the 65 commitments made (including those made in the annex). This stands in contrast to the issue of climate change, which, despite receiving more mentions in the communiqué, received only three politically binding and measurable commitments. This imbalance suggests that the G7 is leaving the United Nations system and its Paris Agreement to lead on climate change.

This deference to the UN is supported by the ministers' endorsement of both the Paris Agreement and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in the second paragraph of the declaration, which followed the first paragraph listing meeting attendees. The UN principle of sustainable development, referred to throughout the communiqué, is evidently given high priority and somewhat overshadows pure environmental concerns.

The environment ministers also recognized the progress made by the G7/8 leaders, referring to the declarations made at the 2008 Hokkaido and 2015 Elmau summits, and the Kobe 3R Action Plan initiated by G8 environment ministers also in 2008. The ministers expressed their "willingness" to mobilize and increase climate finance for developing countries by "working jointly with countries outside the G7 and with other international actors such as multilateral development banks and the private sector."

The Toyama ministers also highlighted the heavy harm done to women by climate change, an important point promoted by Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna.

The most frequently cited G7 institution is the G7 Alliance on Resource Efficiency. The environment ministers referred to the Alliance's importance and agreed to cooperate on implementing its mandate, producing two commitments in the communiqué with one appearing in a stand-alone section. This recognition was not inspired by G7 leadership alone, but helped along by two reports released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in response to a request made by G7 leaders at the 2015 Elmau Summit. At Toyama on May 15, UNEP released a summary of its report titled Resource Efficiency: Potential and Economic Implications. It states that the expected global population increase will accompany rising natural resource exploration and extraction — a major source of environmental degradation and climate change due to production processes. The OECD's Policy Guidance on Resource Efficiency suggests the same, saying that the world's advanced economies have the capacity to do more to mitigate against this trend by implementing better policies targeted at resource efficiency.

The contribution of the G7 environment ministers to the development of global governance is therefore mixed. They support external institutions — primarily the UN — on the issues of climate change and sustainable development, as well as already established internal organizations in the G7's traditional issue area of energy and natural resources. And they support a combination of both on the relatively new areas of supply-chain management and climate finance.

The revival of the G7 environment ministerial meeting may therefore have implications for the success or failure of the new global environmental and climate goals. John Kirton of the G7 Research Group has found that G7 compliance with its climate commitments can be improved as a result of several catalysts, including holding regular ministers' meetings. The G7 environment ministers should therefore resume their tradition of meeting regularly in order to maintain the momentum of cooperation within and outside its membership. Doing so would encourage stronger compliance and would speed up the work already being done to establish greater harmony with the natural world.

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Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is a researcher with the G7 and G8 Research Group, the G20 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She has worked in Spain and in Peru where she conducted field research on a sustainable development project with women living in extreme poverty. She has conducted research on the compliance of CARICOM members with their summit commitments on non-communicable diseases. Brittaney leads the social media strategy and marketing program for the G7 and G20 Research Groups' books and works on climate change, and was the lead researcher on an e-book project on "Delivering Sustainable Energy Access."

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