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G20 Energy Ministers Meet Again

Brittaney Warren, Researcher, G7 Research Group
July 6, 2016

G20 energy ministers met for the second time on June 29-30, 2016, in Beijing under China's presidency. They produced 25 politically binding, future-oriented, collective commitments in their final communiqué. The most frequently cited issues were renewable energy mentioned in six commitments, energy access mentioned in five and energy efficiency mentioned in four. Climate change was not explicitly mentioned in any commitment and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies was mentioned in one.

This finding is in contrast to the first energy ministers' meeting ever held last year on October 2, 2015, under Turkey's G20 presidency, which saw a total of 20 commitments made. One 2015 commitment was dedicated to supporting climate change control through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's then anticipated Paris Agreement. That historic initial meeting produced a wider spread of commitments across issue areas. Renewable energy, reduced vehicle emissions and the development of natural gas appeared in one commitment each. Energy access, energy security and clean technology appeared in two commitments each. Energy access was supported in the form of a promise of collaboration with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its new Sustainable Development Goal to ensure clean energy access for all, as well as the UN-led Sustainable Energy for All campaign. Yet unlike this year's meeting, there was no commitment made to eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, despite the leaders' promise at their Pittsburgh Summit in September 2009 to have done so by now.

In this regard the 2016 energy ministers' meeting appears more successful than the 2015 one. Although no hard promise was made on climate change, the issue was catapulted to the communiqué's chapeau, demonstrating principled support. Eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies came in the form of a measurable commitment. The commitment was limited, however, as it came only with a general promise to implement the phase-out in the medium term. This phase-out was first promised by G20 leaders seven years ago at Pittsburgh, with only partial progress made to date. Moreover, subsidization remains high. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.3 trillion in 2015. According to the IMF, eliminating these subsidies will generate gains reaching $2.9 trillion and will prevent 50% of all carbon-related deaths. The G20 provides a significant portion of this amount. Estimates from the Overseas Development Institute shows the G20 contribution is approximately $444 billion annually. The 2016 ministerial commitment therefore merely reiterates a missed deadline. Ministerial support in the form of developing and implementing a strict phase-out schedule, something akin to that under the successful 1987 Montreal Protocol, may prove more motivating than pure iteration.

The 2016 energy ministers' communiqué also had a section dedicated to liquefied natural gas (LNG). Ministers recognized that natural gas has become "an integral part of global energy supply" and stated they "will enhance collaboration on solutions that promote natural gas extraction, transportation, and processing in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts." Yet although LNG produces fewer emissions than do other fossil fuel heat sources, according to the David Suzuki Foundation these relative benefits do not eliminate the other air-polluting costs that come with natural gas exploitation and can only be realized in the complete absence of coal-fired power plants. Achieving a global coal shutdown will likely require an immediate reduction in the billions of fossil fuel subsidies the G20 provides every year.

The 2016 energy ministers' communiqué supported LNG but did not make the coal connection, indicating that strong leadership on catalyzing clean energy development could come from elsewhere. At the recently concluded North American Leaders' Summit, Canada, the United States and Mexico produced the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership. The three leaders stated that they intend "for North America to strive to achieve 50 percent clean power generation by 2025." Developing renewable energy sources as a substitute for coal and reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector through implementing regulations were among the targets outlined in the partnership's action plan. This continental cohesion, especially in light of the uncertainties created by Brexit, and environmental values shared among the North American leaders may have a reassuring influence on the upcoming G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, in early September.

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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." Follow her at @brittaneywarren.

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