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The Hangzhou Summit's First Small Step to Control Climate Change

John Kirton, Co-director, G20 Research Group
August 31, 2016

A few days before the 11th G20 summit starts in Hangzhou, on September 4, it is about to produce its first serious success on the critical issue of controlling climate change.

On September 2, China as G20 host and the United States are expected to announce jointly that they will ratify the historic December 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change and do so before the end of the year. These two countries together account for 38% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the Paris Agreement requires 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions to ratify for it to enter into legal force. This act of Sino-US co-leadership will thus do much to make the Paris Agreement real.

Up to then, G20 members had been slow to ratify to agreement. The first to do so was France, acting on June 15 a full half year after the agreement was reached in its capital city and about two months after the high-profile, summit-level signing ceremony at the UN in New York in mid April 2016. Then came Korea and signs of political movement in the legislature of Brazil. But many of the other major players were, and still are, missing in action. They include Canada, whose immensely popular prime minister Justin Trudeau has a majority in his parliament, an electoral mandate to move strongly to control climate change, and is bringing this issue as his third highest priority to the G20's Hangzhou Summit.

This new act of Sino-US G20 co-leadership on climate change is reminiscent of what presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama did just before the G20's Brisbane Summit in November 2014, as I describe in my new book from Routledge Publishing, China's G20 Leadership. Still, it is a small step on a long road if the world is to control climate change in the short time that is left before catastrophic dynamics erupt in full force.

Although there are several routes for such an agreement to assume legal force in the United States, including those that do not require the advice and consent of a resistant, gridlocked Senate in a presidential election year, Congress still controls the spending power necessary to fully implement the Paris Agreement. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denies that climate change is taking place at all.

Rapid ratification by other leading G20 members is also required to maintain this trans-Pacific momentum and reach the 55% emissions threshold. First in line here are the hitherto silent Japan and Germany, the world's third and fourth largest economies that are still addicted to burning killer coal to generate electricity at home.

All G20 leaders thus need to do more at Hangzhou than just promise to "work to" bring the Paris Agreement into legal effect, as President Xi cautiously put it in announcing his key aims for his summit. The world's key 20 leaders must pledge that they, each of them, will ratify or similarly act before the end of the year. If they all act together, they will bring a majority well beyond the required 55% to the bear on task.

Even if they do, it will not be nearly enough. International laws created by the UN matter but do not usually lead to full, fast implementation by all members who legally sign on. And even if they did, the Paris Agreement was designed to fail, for even if all its provisions were fully implemented, it would not limit the growth in emissions to the 2°C post-industrial revolution target set in the agreement, let alone the 1.5°C rise that is really required to keep the world safe. Thus real political action for the real material world is needed by the leaders at Hangzhou, meeting just after July 2016 came in as the world's hottest month in recorded history and each month for the last year was warmer than its counterpart ever before.

Among the dozen or so things G20 leaders at Hangzhou need to do, two stand out. The first is to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, as they promised to do in the medium term at their Pittsburgh Summit way back in 2009. They are two years overdue on keeping this promise, and their citizens and the whole world are paying the price for this G20 pledge not yet kept. The second is to agree to kill killer coal for electricity generation by the fixed date in the near future, as Canada did in 2009, the United Kingdom promised to do this year and as China has started in practice to do as well.

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