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Promising Prospects for the Halifax G7 Environment Ministers' Meeting

John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group
September 1, 2018

In just over two weeks, Group of Seven (G7) ministers for climate change and the environment, oceans and energy will gather in Halifax, Canada, for the annual environment ministerial meeting (EMM) that supports their leaders' summit. The Halifax G7 EMM promises to be a very productive event. Indeed, it has already made history in several ways.


First, for the first time since G7 environment ministers started meeting in 1992, Canada, as the G7 host in 2018, is assembling not just ministers of the environment but also those responsible for the closely connected subjects of oceans and energy. Canada's previous four ministerial meetings in 2018 combined only two portfolios each. Never before has any G7 ministerial meeting on any subjects joined three. This has already catalyzed an unusually intense degree of interdepartmental communications and coordination among the departments or agencies responsible for the environment, oceans and energy, both internationally and domestically as the preparatory process for Halifax gathers steam.

Second, Halifax takes place just over three months after the leaders' G7 summit in Charlevoix on June 8-9 and serves as the last culminating ministerial in Canada's year as host. Of the 20 previous EMMs, only four took place after the summit. And few of these served as the culminating ministerial of the country's year as host.

Third, in their public outcome documents G7 leaders at Charlevoix gave their ministers an unprecedentedly large number of explicit mandates to guide their work at Halifax. This represented an unusually high expression of confidence in their ministers and a vote of support in advance for what they do there. Although some members' environment ministers have changed since Charlevoix, notably in the United States on July 5 and in France on August 28, their leaders and the support of the leaders endures.

Fourth, Halifax has been preceded and will be accompanied by a high number of events to bring civil society into the process in a meaningful way. Canada was somewhat of a pioneer in this regard when it hosted the EMM in Banff as G7 chair in 2002 (see Civil Society Engagement: A Case Study of the 2002 G8 Environment Ministers Meeting by Sheila Risbud in Sustainability, Civil Society and International Governance, 2006). Yet at Halifax it has taken civil society engagement to a new high. Its many initiatives in the lead-up have included a Meech Lake retreat for female leaders and a youth innovation challenge. At Halifax itself there will days of pre-ministerial side events and an oceans dialogue for about 200 invited civil society representatives on the second day.

Propellers of Performance

Joining these innovative preparations are propellers of performance that have proven their worth in spurring G7 success in the past.

The first is shock-activated vulnerability, a sequence of sharp, sudden surprising events that bring visible death and destruction to citizens of G7 members and those beyond. The weeks leading up to Halifax have seen historic high temperatures and heat in most G7 members, notably the United States, Japan and Europe. These have sparked extreme weather events such as historically large and long forest fires in California, British Columbia and parts of Europe. Although the current hurricane season has been modest, there are fresh memories of the ravages of the unusually deadly and damaging ones last year. The Halifax ministerial marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the Caribbean and Atlantic territories of the United States, United Kingdom, France and European Union's Netherlands. Figures just released show that Maria killed almost 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, making it one of the most deadly hurricanes in the United States in recent times.

The second propeller is the strengthening support in mass public opinion for action to control these shocks and their underlying cause of climate change. In host Canada, citizens in an Abacus Data poll taken on August 15-20 placed climate change second among the issues they were extremely concerned about, with 34% of respondents choosing it, behind the 48% who chose Donald Trump. Canadians also put extreme weather in sixth place, showing that the summer's shock-activated vulnerability was hitting home.

The Canadian government was also bolstered by rising political support in the public opinion polls. The Nanos poll that had showed the opposition Conservative Party leading the Liberal party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and environment minister Catherine McKenna on July 20 put the Liberals in first place at 38.8% and Conservatives in second at 34.4% by August 24.

More broadly, over the past year there has been a contagious tide of media attention and civil society action on preventing plastic pollution in the oceans, which is a central priority on the Halifax agenda. Initiated by Sir David Attenborough and the BBC, the spreading message to "free Willy" from plastic poisons offers an emotionally compelling rallying cry.

The third propeller is the continuity of the EMM's chair and other ministers from powerful states. The chair, the Honourable Catherine McKenna, Canada's highly accomplished Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, participated in the G7 EMMs in Bologna in Italy in 2017 and Toyama in Japan in 2016. She will be supported by another EMM veteran, Karmenu Vella from the European Union. The fact that all the others are newcomers offers opportunities for them to make a fresh start, injecting innovation and ambition as never before.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G7 Research Group, and co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China's Renmin University. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. He has served as a member of Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and has advised the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, estabished to implement the North American Free Trade Agreement. He as also advised Environment and Climate Change Canada. His most recent books include Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Routledge 2018), China's G20 Leadership (Routledge, 2016), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015), and Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa: Disease, Govenance, Climate Change, co-edted with Andrew F. Cooper, Franklyn Lisk and Hany Besada (Ashgate, 2014). Kirton is also co-editor with Madeline Koch of several publications on the G7/8, the G20 and the BRICS, including G7 Canada: The 2018 Charlevoix Summit, published by GT Media and the Global Governance Project.

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