Economist Jeffrey Sachs plainly stated that the last G7 summit was a waste of resources. He believes the G7 should be discontinued as it is no longer representative nor effective as a policy forum. He noted that G7 countries dropped to 31% of global GDP in 2021 compared to 51% in 1980, whereas Asian developing countries moved from 9% up to 33%.
Because several problems afflicting humanity today are global, we cannot confront different positions and discuss potential solutions without political and economic international players such as China, Russia, and India. The G20 is thus the right forum to discuss problems such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change and agree on strategies and solutions. The G20 includes both developed and emerging countries and represents 85% of the world’s GDP, two-thirds of the total population, 75% of the world’s trade, and almost 80% of the planet’s overall warming emissions.
Despite these important aspects, the G20 remains a highly heterogeneous group both in terms of GDP and the structure of its members’ energy systems. It includes big energy consumers — such as China and the US — and energy producers including Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Canada. Above all, G20 nations are not aligned when it comes to climate policy. Roughly speaking, while the EU and the US agree on the necessity to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, countries like China, India, Indonesia or Mexico are much more prudent. An example of this claim was offered by the G20 Environment meeting in Naples on July 23rd, where the final communiqué concealed the failure to agree on eliminating the use of coal by 2025 and on the need to limit emissions to a value compatible with a +1.5°C temperature increase. Notwithstanding the efforts of the host, the Italian Minister of the Ecological Transition Cingolani, and the support of John Kerry, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, the conclusion of that summit echoed that of several previous COPs, the UN annual meetings designed to make progress on the fight against climate change: unanimous final statements without an actual agreement on critical issues. The reason behind that is that several emerging and developing countries – while recognizing the importance of the problem and fully understanding the danger posed by the changing climate – are reluctant to adopt measures perceived to be harmful to their economic development. The issue has been around for the past 25 years, at least since the Kyoto Protocol: less industrialized countries do not intend to undertake obligations that are not comparable to the EU’ and the US’s. In the words of the Indian Environment Minister: "Historical cumulative emissions are the source of the climate crisis facing the world today". And developed countries are responsible for these historic emissions.
Still, 2021 is “the make it or break it year” in the words of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. As we approach the COP26 in Glasgow, co-chaired by the United Kingdom and Italy, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been intensifying his calls to action against climate change. "The climate emergency is like a pandemic and we must act now”, he said at the opening of the 76th General Assembly in New York on September 20th. He added that "We will need to strengthen our common efforts in accelerating the phasing out of unabated coal both at national and international level".
This increased activism is to be welcome because while science is the necessary condition, politics is the sufficient one. The former has sounded the alarm for quite some time now, until the recent release by the IPCC of the first part of the Sixth Assessment Report Climate Change 2021 on August 9th. Meanwhile, the latter has been too slow at taking action. However, the EU’s measures against climate change demonstrate that obtaining important results is possible when there is political will. They also show that reducing emissions does not undermine economic growth: from 1990 to 2019, EU emissions went down by 23% while GDP rose by 60%.
Though that is a remarkable achievement, other G20 countries have not fared as well in this respect. But are the EU’s efforts enough? And are they happening fast enough?
On the one hand, there is much more that needs to be done and the EU — between its climate law and the Fir for 55 package — only accounts for 9% of global emissions. The other G20 countries must be collectively and resolutely engaged. The new mantra has become full decarbonization and net-zero emissions (NZE). As of last June, 59 countries, representing 54% of global GHG emissions, have set net-zero emissions targets, including the world’s two largest emitters — the United States and China — according to the World Resources Institute. The NZE target is a step in the right direction because it gives a time frame and a deadline to the energy transition and the decarbonization process. In an influential yet controversial report, the IEA has traced a possible path and consistent actions to reach that goal.
The G20 summit this year will be held for the first time since its birth in 1999 in Italy on 30 and 31 October, under the presidency of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. The summit in Rome will mainly focus on discussions on the issues that the Italian presidency summarizes in the "three Ps": people, planet and prosperity. As far as the climate problem is concerned, the Roman meeting will benefit from the outcome of the extensive work undertaken by the T20, the official engagement group of the G20 that brings together leading global think tanks and research centers. Among the recommendations offered to G20 leaders by T20 are the need to prioritize low-carbon, green growth policies, deploy budgetary instruments to curb emissions such as carbon pricing schemes and tax incentives and subsidies to encourage decarbonization of the economies, set up a Low-carbon financial Facility to catalyze funds, recognize nature-based solutions to fight and adapt to climate change, strengthen REDD+ climate instruments for forests. Given these inputs, the G20 summit is a further meeting of fundamental importance in the path towards COP26.
The COP26 in Glasgow is a call to action: the time is ripe for a transition from public announcements to actual decisions. Progress on carbon market mechanisms, funding for loss and damage, ‘nature-based solutions’ (NBS), the “Paris rulebook”, discussions over the delivery of the $100 bn finance target, setting the next 2025 target for climate finance, engagement of the private sector in climate finance. These are a few of the fronts where progress can be made and is needed. We count on the UK Presidency, in partnership with Italy, at the COP26 to avoid falling into the trap of the Covid-19 rhetoric as an excuse to postpone the adoption of crucial decisions. We can no longer afford it.
Marzio Galeotti is Full Professor at "Università degli Studi di Milano" and Co-Chair of the T20 TF2 on Climate Change, Sustainable Energy and Environment.