The G20 and Climate Change

By Tom Wymer

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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to go to Argentina to cover the G20 Summit for Global Policy, an international affairs journal. Our team were there to produce in depth analysis of the policy decisions and outcomes from the Summit. We produced blogs and policy briefs on everything from cryptocurrencies to Sino-Japanese relations. In particular though, I was really pleased that so much of our work looked at what the G20 are doing on issues related to climate change, like food sustainabilityenvironmentally sustainable infrastructure, and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies

Unfortunately, however, the 2018 G20’s commitments on these issues left a lot to be desired. The collective leaders’ statement at the end of the Summit allowed the US to reiterate “its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement”; it included some very weak language on how to reduce the world’s emissions, which was widely regarded to be an attempt to appease oil rich member states like Saudi Arabia; and finally, the leaders failed to mention how they will meet the funding targets set out in the Paris Agreement to support climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. 

This failure is particularly disappointing given that the G20 can and should be central to the fight against climate change. Indeed, the G20 has proven to be at its most effective in times of global crisis. This was most clearly seen in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis where the likes of Gordon Brown, George W Bush, Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel were incredibly successful in using the G20 Summits to create an effective global response and avert a far bigger economic depression. 

 But now the world is facing another, much larger crisis: climate change. As some of the leading investors in the world reminded us this week, climate change could lead to a financial crisis many times the size of the 2008 crash. But it also presents a crisis to our homes, our health and our natural environment, to name just a few. 

 So why is the G20 so important in the global fight against climate change?

 While the COP talks are still vital, we have seen over the last few weeks in Poland that achieving consensus between every country on the planet is incredibly difficult. Indeed, the countries failed to even endorse the recent IPCC report that they themselves commissioned. The G20, by contrast, can be a lot more effective. While it is highly exclusive and unrepresentative of the world’s population, it is a far smaller and less unwieldy body with a greater prospect of building consensus. Reaching an agreement between 20 countries will always be far easier than between 197. Furthermore, the G20 is made up of the countries with the most political influence, economic clout and, crucially, responsibility for a disproportionate amount of the world’s emissions. Therefore, if we are to tackle climate change it is primarily going to be down to action taken by these countries.

 Overall, the 2018 G20 Summit was a disappointment on climate change. But that does not mean that the G20 cannot play a key role in tackling climate change. The G20 can work alongside the existing COP talks, acting as a forum for the largest emitters to reach agreement. In future the leaders of the world’s largest economies must use these summits as an opportunity to be a driving force behind the fight against climate change.