5 Takeaways from the G20 Climate Meeting

BY: Ethan Brown

In July, the G20—a group of 19 countries and the European Union, which includes most of the world’s largest economies—met in advance of November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, referred to as COP26. The two main topics of contention were (1) if and how quickly to phase out coal and (2) if the emissions reduction pledges that countries set forth in the Paris Agreement were ambitious enough. 

Here are the five biggest takeaways from the meeting: 

1. The G20 could, on their own, mitigate most of anthropogenic climate change.

Considering that 85% of global anthropogenic carbon emissions come from G20 nations, these countries have the ability to massively mitigate climate change on their own. According to 2018 data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, China is the leading carbon emitter at 10.06GT (billion metric tons), followed by the United States (5.41GT)India (2.65GT)Russia (1.71GT), Japan (1.16GT), and Germany (0.75GT). 

That’s not to say the rest of the world can’t help. At number seven on the list, emitting 0.72GT of carbon in 2018, Iran is the largest emitter of the non-G20 nations. Additionally, the emissions from many developing countries are on the rise, and many of these countries feel that by cutting their emissions, their economic growth potential is penalized because of the environmental mistakes of their wealthier neighbors. But sustainable development can help with this dilemma. By using increasingly affordable renewable energy—which could be even more economical if G20 nations invest heavily in it—developing countries can grow their economies without emitting carbon dioxide and contributing to the climate crisis. At COP26, all UN member states will have a seat at the table.

2. Coal remains divisive.

A 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency found that “new solar and wind installations will increasingly undercut even the operating-only costs of existing coal-fired plants.” In India, for example, 141 gigawatts of electricity from the coal-fired plants currently operating would be cheaper if the plants were shut down and replaced with a clean alternative. Beyond being increasingly uneconomical, coal is a major source of environmental and health issues. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuelit emits pollutants such as mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates; it produces coal ash, which ends up in our waterways; and it’s linked to health impacts that range from asthma and breathing difficulties, to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death. That’s not to say there aren’t pros to coal: it’s plentiful in many countries and it’s easy to store with no hazard of fire or explosion like there is with gas and oil. But many G20 nations felt strongly that the cons outweighed the pros and hoped that an agreement to phase out coal would materialize at the G20 meeting. 

However, China, Russia, and India objected to phaseout language being used in the meeting communique, and the meeting failed to reach an outcome where the G20 could commit to an end to coal. That’s not to say these countries prefer coal to clean energy, but as emerging economiesChina, Russia, and India have rapidly increasing energy demands, and may want to leave all their options open as they scale up their energy capacity. As Kanika Chawla—senior program lead at the Delhi-based think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water—says in a quote from Greentech Media, “The [Indian] government does have a really strong commitment to clean energy, but that is not the same as a really strong commitment to decarbonization.” The G20 nations seem to agree on scaling up clean energy, but actually taking an energy source off the table is a different story. 

3. International accountability is essentially impossible to enforce. 

Our international government system, put simply, is anarchy. Countries can make agreements, but without any enforcement system, countries do what they want. So, although the Paris Agreement was groundbreaking in that nearly every country on Earth acknowledged climate change is real, and the world must act, the treaty is more a goal-setting mechanism than anything else. Member states agree to try to limit global warming to well below 2°C and preferably to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels, and to do it, countries formulate plans, share those plans, and report their progress. There are also systems for countries to help each other with financing, technology, and capacity building. But since our international government system allows countries to act as they please on the global stage, nothing in the Paris Agreement is binding. 

At the G20 meeting, that fact was clearer than ever. While countries tried persuading each other why they should or shouldn’t phase out coal, for example, there wasn’t a particularly meaningful outcome at the end. Even though all of these countries are part of the Paris Agreement, and even though continued coal use very clearly would make it near impossible to meet the Paris Agreement guidelines, there’s not much to force countries to follow through with the agreement they signed up for, aside from the Climate Action Network giving out the “Fossil of the Day” award. 

4. The Paris Agreement targets set by countries don’t align with the agreement’s desired outcome. 

Not only is the Paris Agreement impossible to enforce, but the carbon emission reduction pledges most countries made under the agreement are not enough to limit global warming to the agreed upon 1.5°C to 2°C range. According to a 2019 study published by the nonprofit Universal Ecological Fund titled “The truth behind the climate pledges,” only 35 out of the 184 Paris Agreement pledges were judged as sufficient to slow climate change: the 28 from the European Union, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Monaco, Norway, Switzerland and UkraineMeanwhile, 136 pledges were deemed partially or totally insufficient, either due to there being no emissions reduction target, an insufficient target, or heavy reliance on international financing or support. And while it’s certainly very reasonable for some countries to request international support, since the Paris Agreement was in-part designed to offer that, the study reported that a majority of these conditional pledges, which rely heavily on international financing or support, came from upper- and middle-income countries. 

At the G20 meeting, nations discussed the need to implement more ambitious emission reduction plans in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. According to an article from The Guardian, the EU and UK have put forth pledges that would bring the world close to the 1.5°C goal, but China, Russia, Brazil, and Australia’s plans would, if followed by the rest of the world, lead to 5°C of warming. This means not only is there little to no accountability for the goals countries do set, but the goals themselves are, in most cases, way off-target. 

5. Climate change is here right now, and everyone knows it.

While proponents of more ambitious climate action may not have gotten the outcome they hoped for from the G20 meeting, the fact that the G20 had an earnest discussion about the climate crisis with every participant acknowledging the existence of the problem is, by itself, meaningful. Not long ago, the questions we asked our leaders were “is climate change happening?” or “is climate change caused by humans?” When today’s questions are “how quickly can your country phase out coal?” or “how can your country decarbonize even faster?” it’s hard to not feel like the tide is turning. Literally and figuratively.