G20 Research Group

G20 Summits |  G20 Ministerials |  G20 Analysis |  Search |  About the G20 Research Group
[English]  [Français]  [Deutsch]  [Italiano]  [Portuguesa]  [Japanese]  [Chinese]  [Korean]  [Indonesian]

University of Toronto

G20 Information Centre
provided by the G20 Research Group

Promising Prospects for Planetary Preservation
at Saudi Arabia's G20 in 2020

John Kirton, Director, G20 Research Group
December 6, 2019

On December 1, 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia formally took the chair of the G20 for 2020 and simultaneously launched its ambitious approach and priority agenda for its year as host. Far more than any previous presidency at the start, Saudi Arabia put the ecological preservation of the planet first, and did so in a broad, well-targeted way. It now remains to be seen if the G20 partners will mobilize to match and meet Saudi Arabia's historic vision and indeed improve upon it to control the climate change crisis currently underway.

The Approach

In its Overview of Saudi Arabia's 2020 G20 Presidency, published on the G20's new website on December 1, 2019, the introduction by King Salaman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud identified the "environmental changes" transforming the world and said the G20 should "strive for sustainable economic policies to safeguard planet earth." In doing so he explicitly linked the economy, as the traditional focus of the G20's work, to the planet's natural environment, as the new central challenge, in ways that put the environment first. The Riyadh Summit would be the first G20 summit designed to put the economy at the service of the environment, even more than Germany's G20 in 2017 at Hamburg and Japan's in 2019 at Osaka.

This ecological focus was reinforced in several sections that elaborated on the King's vision. The overview explicitly put climate change first, by referring to "climate and natural disaster threats." In outlining "Our Collective Approach for 2020," the Saudi presidency declared it would "deliver concrete actions by prioritizing critical issues for people and planet earth," thus according equivalence to human and other living things and to the natural world as an integrated whole. It further promised to "adopt results-oriented, forward-looking and sustainable perspectives, prepare for long-term policies and avoid excessive short termism."

Its summary of its three aims saw two explicitly include the environment. The first, the economic and social "Empowering People," promised to "scale up efforts for sustainable development, and foster inclusive and sustainable tourism." The second, fully ecological "Safeguarding the Planet" again started with climate change, added "advancing synergies between adaptation and mitigation", and embraced the environment in general and also energy, water and food. The emphasis on synergies, including adaptation for mitigation and the reverse, is an important innovation.

The document then detailed the specific priorities under each of its three aims. The economic-social aim of Empowering People had nine priorities, with two of them including explicitly environmental or ecologically sustainable development one. The ecological aim of Safeguarding the Planet had all six priorities on the environment, with four of them explicitly referring to climate change. The third, more security-focused aim of "Shaping New Frontiers," had one of its seven priorities, that on space, addressing the environment and climate change. Together, nine of 41% of the 22 priorities were explicitly ecological ones. This was substantially more ecological mainstreaming than any other G20 host has offered at the start before.

The Agenda Priorities

A closer examination of the nine ecological priorities provides further grounds for promise.

Protecting the Planet began with the priority of "Managing Emissions for Sustainable Development." It thus put climate change control first, and noted the "urgency" of this "imperative" need. It sought a new economic model to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions throughout the economy, calling for comprehensive measures in all sectors rather than the inadequate mainstream approaches used now. It embraced not just sinks but also sources, wisely selecting "nature-based solutions such as reforestation" and "restoring marine resources" as instruments of choice.

The second priority, "Combatting Land Degradation and Habitat Loss" also put forests first, noting that "deforestation and other land use are also responsible for 24 percent of GHG emissions." The G20 could thus lead the world through this one measure to solve 25% of its immediate climate crisis and contribute to biodiversity conservation too.

The third priority, "Preserving the Oceans," noted how climate change is endangering coral reefs, on which up to half the world's marine life depend. It promised to build on the advances of Japan's 2019 G20 presidency, which in turn had expanded the work of the Group of Seven (G7) led by France in 2019 and Canada in 2018.

The fourth priority, "Fostering Sustainable and Resilient Water Systems Globally," highlighted an immediate issue for all people in their daily lives and made a direct link to the United Nations 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It wisely noted that improving financing was a critical instrument here.

The fifth priority, "Promoting Food Security," correctly noted that food security was harmed by climate change as well as biodiversity loss. It admirably identified the importance of "changing dietary habits" as a response.

The sixth priority, "Cleaner Energy Systems for a New Era," promised "to further advance cleaner energy transitions" through use of all energy sources and innovative technologies. It further committed to discussing "the concept of circular carbon economy."

These ecological advances were reinforced by two of the nine priorities under the economic aim of "Empowering People."

The aim of "Scaling up Efforts for Sustainable Development" emphasized the importance of implementation now, above all the need to accelerate this and to strengthen accountability measures to support this cause.

The aim of "Tourism as a Force for Human-Centered Economic Growth" identified this sector as a "major force" in reaching the SDGs. It promised that the 2020 G20 will focus on the "social, economic and environmental impact of tourism and how to promote it for the benefit of both visitors and local communities and create a bridge between different societies."

The third, security-oriented aim of Shaping New Frontiers added a final ecological priority to the already substantial list.

Its first aim of "Promoting Space Cooperation" was an innovative addition offered to advance sustainable development. "Space observation and sharing of information can contribute significantly to the protection of common global goods such as climate and the oceans." Here the Saudi host built on the initiatives proposed by members of the Japanese and German governments for the 2019 G20 and the results of the G7 environment ministers' meeting at Halifax in 2018.


These aims and priorities appear even more promising from several key features of the context within which they were launched.

First, the heavy emphasis on ecologically safeguarding the planet shows the Saudi host has not been deterred by the climate change skepticism of any G20 leader, either from a superpower or countries beyond, despite any vital energy and security ties it has.

Second, the Saudi priorities show its G20 is fully aligned with the United Nations. The latter includes the UN's 25th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change taking place in Madrid as the Saudi G20 year began, the COP 26 Glasgow Summit in December 2020 just after the Saudi's G20 Riyadh Summit ends and the many ecological SDGs 2020 due to be improved in 2020 too.

Third, Saudi Arabia's agenda announced publicly in the name of the King of December 1 shows Saudi Arabia has continued and indeed built on the many ecological priorities the Crown Prince announced to his fellow G20 leaders at the G20 Osaka Summit in June 2019.

Fourth, Saudi Arabia's G20 priorities flow from and reinforce its domestic priorities presented in its Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia knows that the economic and physical survival of the Kingdom and its citizens depends on climate change control, at a time when the oil and gas on which its economy depends is destined to become a stranded asset and as the outdoor temperature of their kingdom relentlessly and rapidly rises toward a levels that the human physiology cannot withstand.

Together, these propellers reinforce the Saudi G20 host's promising push-off for preserving the planet's endangered ecology. With the first meetings of the leaders' personal representatives and finance deputies taking place in Riyadh from December 3 to 7, the attention of G20 governors and their outside stakeholders will turn to the formidable task of implementing and improving the ambitious measures the Saudi chair has admirably set, so that the 2020 G20 can meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and adequately control the climate crisis now at hand.

[back to top]

John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G20 Research Group, G7 Research Group and Global Health Diplomacy Program and co-director of the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Polic at the University of Toronto. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. 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 G20 Japan: The 2019 Osaka Summit and G7 France: The 2019 Biarritz Summit, published by GT Media and the Global Governance Project, as well as Health Is a Political Choice, a special publication produced with the support of the World Health Organization.

This Information System is provided by the University of Toronto Library
and the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto.
Please send comments to: g20@utoronto.ca
This page was last updated December 06, 2019 .

All contents copyright © 2022. University of Toronto unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.