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Climate Ambition Stagnant at G20 Osaka Summit

Brittaney Warren, G7 and G20 Research Groups
July 29, 2019

On June 28–29, 2019, G20 leaders and their invited guests met in Osaka to discuss the world's most pressing problems. Capturing the headlines was the trade war between U.S. president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping, and U.S.-North Korea relations. Although these were significant issues with clear ramifications for ordinary citizens, mainstream media largely ignored the more urgent and more existential climate crisis. This was in spite of climate change being one of host Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's top three priorities for the Osaka Summit. The first priority was the Osaka Track on data governance and digitization; the second was trade, with a focus on digital trade; and the third was climate change, with a focus on technological innovation.

In the lead up to the summit, most observers had predicted little progress would come on climate change. Leslie Pal, dean of the School of Public Policy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, anticipated that "climate change [would] get ritualistic mentions" but that nothing concrete would come, due to Trump's climate change denial. Alan Crawford, reporting for Bloomberg News, also predicted a lack of consensus on climate change, emphasizing that voters in G20 countries had different degrees of concern and therefore expectations for climate policy making. He noted that in one survey, although 66% of Japanese people stated energy and the environment were the second most important areas the government should invest research in (health was first), climate change itself did not make the list. A similar, but slightly more optimistic view, from John Kirton, director of the G20 Research Group based at the University of Toronto, predicted Osaka would take stock of climate change but not be "a source of significant shifts."

Unambitious Commitment Making

These pessimistic predictions came true. Led by persistent tensions between the United States and the rest, reports emerged during the leaders' meeting that Abe would produce only watered-down statements on climate change to placate Trump. This outcome was only narrowly avoided, due to French president Emmanuel Macron's insistence on a strong reference to the Paris Agreement in the communiqué. The result was a status quo summit on climate change.

Overall, the G20 made 13 climate change commitments, minus the United States on a few, for 9% of the 143 of the commitments on all subjects. This was the third highest number of commitments on specific subjects made at the summit. Development and health ranked first and second with 24 and 14 commitments, respectively. Meanwhile, the topic everyone was focused on — trade — ranked only 10th out of 17 issue areas with just six commitments.

Quantitatively, this suggests at least a somewhat successful summit on climate change. This is especially so when comparing Osaka's performance with the 2018 Buenos Aires Summit, where leaders managed to produce only three climate commitments. Substantively, however, the 13 Osaka climate commitments were not adequate to avoid a rise in the global average temperature to levels uninhabitable for humans.

Just four commitments were on the Paris Agreement. Three excluded the United States. One reiterated the U.S. intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, under the Trumpian logic that "it disadvantages American workers and taxpayers." The three Paris commitments saw the "G19" agree to:

  1. continue to build momentum in anticipation of the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2019 in Santiago, Chile;
  2. implement the Paris Agreement; and
  3. "communicate, update or maintain" nationally determined contributions.

While it is better that these commitments appeared in the communiqué than not, they merely reiterated what G20 members were already obligated to do as signatories to the Paris Agreement. The Osaka G20 thus offered nothing new. It missed an important opportunity to add value to the global climate regime.

The G20 made eight other climate commitments and the United States made one other. Of these nine, seven sought to leverage technology and innovation to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. Much of their language was weak and unambitious in light of the scale and urgency of the problem. Countries largely committed "to look into" clean technologies but did not pledge any new money to do so. The closest financing commitment, appearing under the climate change subheading, did not refer to "climate change" or "climate finance." The G20 instead opted for the term "inclusive finance for sustainable development." This shows a clear preference for "human-centred" development and growth, as per the overarching Osaka Summit theme, over strong climate change policies. It suggests a political unwillingness to finance solutions for climate change.

On the subject of inclusiveness, one commitment notably referenced Indigenous and traditional knowledge. This, however, was more exploitative than inclusive, as it sought only to "look into" such knowledge. This implies that traditional knowledge is available to western and non-Indigenous users without consideration for intellectual property rights, land rights or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Finally, only one core energy commitment was made. This was in spite of Abe's enthusiastic push to advance new energy technologies such as hydrogen and the controversial carbon capture storage and utilization. Here the G20 reiterated its commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies "that encourage wasteful consumption, while providing targeted support for the poorest." The G20 has made this same commitment, varying the wording at times, since its 2009 Pittsburgh Summit. It has not complied. Moreover, a report released in the lead-up to the Osaka Summit, led by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Overseas Development Institute and Oil Change International, revealed that G20 members' coal subsidies had increased from $17 billion to $47 billion per year. G20 leaders were giving an additional $17 billion to other countries to develop their coal industries. This money would be more usefully spent on the G20's clean technology, renewable energy and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development commitments.

"Our House Is on Fire"

This lack of ambition and substantively poor performance came in spite of the now very visible consequences of global warming. This included those in G20 members.

In the lead-up to the Osaka Summit, new temperature records were set in France and Germany. On June 26, 2019, temperatures in France, host of the 2019 G7 summit, and Germany hit over 42°C. Such temperatures had never before been seen since record taking began at the turn of the century — until they hit 45°C two days later. Italy, Spain and other European countries also experienced higher than normal temperatures. Western Europe continues to burn (literally). As of June 30, 2019, seven people had died.

In India (which will host the G20 in 2021), also in June, 180 people died from heat. Hundreds more were treated for heatstroke. Heatstroke occurs when the body temperature reaches 40°C or higher and is unable to regulate its own temperature and loses its cooling capabilities, resulting in overheating. The stress of overheating causes illnesses (such as nausea, confusion, and brain and internal organ damage) and ultimately death.

Yet the physical ailments caused by the heat in India have been less deadly than the resulting mental health toll in the region. India is undergoing a suicide epidemic in the tens of thousands, with farmers taking their lives as soaring temperatures destroy their livelihoods.

The rise in suicide rates in North America has been linked to climate change too. According to at least one study, "climatic variables are consistently a better predictor of suicide than socioeconomic factors." Mental healthcare workers in the United States are preparing themselves to treat more patients (including healthcare workers themselves) with anxiety and depression as people experience increasing levels of eco-grief, as well as post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of ecological disasters.

Multilateral Organizational Failure

Osaka's poor performance on climate change was foreshadowed by the UN climate talks in Bonn that came to an unsuccessful end the day before the Osaka Summit began. At Bonn, Saudi Arabia — G20 member and host of the 2020 G20 summit — succeeded in leading a coalition of oil-producing states to terminate any use of the IPCC's 1.5°C report in UN climate negotiations. This was a huge setback for all, especially for the Alliance of Small Island Developing States that pushed for this report to be conducted in light of their immediate and urgent concerns over sea level rise.

Although China received some praise for its climate leadership, along with France and the European Union, on the sidelines of the Osaka Summit, at Bonn it played the key role in ensuring the UN's climate budget was not raised to more than 5%. China is the world's largest absolute emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (Canada is first on a per capita basis).

Conflicting Political Preferences

These conflicting political preferences included those of the United States, as the world's second largest absolute emitter.

Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, the United States has attacked the multinational climate negotiations. But with only a four-year mandate (and eight years maximum), and U.S. subnational actors working to fill the climate governance gap in the meantime, Trump is not the only or arguably the most threatening figure to the planet's health and well-being. The greed that upholds Trump's power, and climate deniers like him, poses a much broader, greater threat. China is blocking funding for the implementation of climate policies; mainstream media is failing to raise public awareness of climate change; and those who actively advocate for climate change policies continue to invest aggressively in fossil fuels and intensive agribusiness, the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

The current status, power and economy of Russia and Saudi Arabia are assured only by the oil and gas that must stop flowing to meet the Paris climate targets. Saudi Arabia, host of the G20's 2020 summit, could instead seize the opportunity to become the world's premier solar super power.

Canada, host of last year's G7 summit, is conflicted. This summer Canada declared a climate emergency. Then 24 hours later it announced it would increase its fossil fuel production with an investment to expand oil sands that are recognized by Canada's own federal scientists as harmful to both human and planetary health. The oil sands are described by a senior scientist at Environment and Climate Canada as "not for the faint of heart — or stomach." This level of cognitive dissonance in the face of a global emergency will prove just as harmful to the balance of life on Earth as any explicit climate denial from Donald Trump and his supporters.

Moreover, global multinational oil and gas corporations, which have known the impact of their products at least since the 1980s, account for nearly as much global warming emissions as the G20 itself. Yet they continue to profit and are not held accountable while many suffer.

The Road to Biarritz

The G7 Biarritz Summit, on August 24–26, 2019, does promise to galvanize action under the leadership of France's President Emmanuel Macron. He has already denied new trade deals unless all members back the Paris Agreement. Under Macron, France has banned domestic oil and gas production by 2040, gas vehicles by 2040 and several single-use plastics and has attempted to implement a national carbon pricing scheme.

However, as with Trump, Macron's leadership is temporary, while global warming is not. It will take more than one climate champion to transform the world's energy and agriculture systems and consumption culture, where infinite growth and monetary profit is the exalted measure of progress and human well-being.

At Biarritz all G7 members must do better than before and must do more than the G20 leaders did at Osaka, starting by unequivocally agreeing to not wait for others to act first. In response to the global financial crisis, between the first G20 summit in Washington in 2008 and the third summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, the G20 mobilized $4 trillion, with $1.1 trillion instantly raised at the 2009 London Summit in between.

For the G7 leaders at Biarritz to be successful they must do the same for the climate crisis at hand.

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Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is director of compliance and lead researcher on climate change for the G7 Research Group, the G20 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. She has published on accountability measures in summit commitments, the G7 and G20's compliance and governance of climate change, and the G20's governance of digitalisation. She has worked in Spain and Peru. She is currently working towards a master's degree in environmental studies at York University. Follow her at @brittaneywarren.


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