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G20 2020 Riyadh's Prospects for Climate Change

Brittaney Warren, G20 Research Group
November 20, 2020

On November 21-22, G20 leaders will meet virtually for the second time in 2020, under the Saudi Arabian presidency, for their 15th regular highest-level summit. Much is at stake, as the world faces the interlinked and converging crises of COVID-19, systemic inequality and climate change, in addition to uncertainties presented by an increasingly data-driven world. Effective global climate change governance requires leaders to think in a holistic way, as rising temperatures not only create new tragedies but exacerbate existing ones, including global health pandemics — infectious and non-communicable — and systemic inequalities of all kinds.

With the United Nations Conference of the Parties climate and biodiversity meetings both postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19, there is no other global meeting at the highest level of leaders other than the G20 to fill at least some of this gap in climate governance. The G20, with its broad agenda, has an opportunity to discuss this urgent issue in earnest and make some of the linkages needed between climate action and other issues of global concern. Yet the G20 host's domestic record and international reputation on climate change leave much concern about the direction Saudi Arabia will lead the G20 and to how far the G20 leaders at the Riyadh Summit will go to increase their ambition to reverse the climate crisis.

The Merits and Misses of Riyadh's Climate Agenda: A Circular Carbon Economy

The G20 Riyadh host has laid out three pillars under an overarching theme of "Realizing Opportunities of the 21st Century for All." The second pillar, "Safeguarding the Planet," includes six action areas: managing emissions for sustainable development, combating land degradation and habitat loss, preserving the oceans, fostering sustainable and resilient water systems globally, promoting food security and cleaner energy systems for a new era.

Riyadh's biggest push is on the circular economy, with a special focus on the circular carbon economy. On November 18, at a panel on "Safeguarding our Planet Through More Sustainable Energy Systems" in the lead-up to the summit, presenters discussed Saudi Arabia's vision to design a Circular Carbon Economy National Program, as well as to create closed-looped delivery systems to minimize waste and extend the life-cycle of packaging.

The circular economy is an alternative model to the current linear-based economy that generates 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste annually. It focuses on the "3 Rs" concepts of reducing, recycling and reusing, and includes policies such as extended producer responsibility to draw out the lifetime of an otherwise single-use product. Although the circular economy includes material waste, the carbon circular economy applies the same concept to atmospheric gases that heat the planet by adding a fourth "R" — remove. In nature-based terms this refers to carbon sinks such as trees, plants, crops and oceans that store carbon dioxide in their roots and cells and release oxygen in exchange. In technological terms, this often refers to innovations such as direct air capture technology.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that in order to keep the global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C since the industrial revolution, emissions must be cut by 45%, or almost half of what they are today, within one decade. It also reports that all scenarios to achieve this require "removing CO2 from the air." This is because carbon dioxide is the highest it has ever been in our atmosphere, at 410 parts per million. The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high was over three million years ago, well before humans had even evolved. This level of atmospheric carbon dioxide equals a global average temperature of between 2°C and 3°C. Current global targets and policies under the Paris Agreement have the world on a beeline trajectory to surpass 3°C.

It is therefore at least in theory a positive contribution of the 2020 Riyadh agenda to directly address the need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While important, Riyadh's focus on carbon removal thus far fails to acknowledge trade-offs, such as the prevalence of the idea and action of reinvesting captured carbon into the fossil fuel sector. Failing to plan for and avoid trade-offs risks debilitating any progress on reversing emissions growth, as well as undermining the G20's efforts to govern on Riyadh's other environmental priorities, including afforestation, water and food security, and clean oceans and other nature-based solutions.

In spite of the global health pandemic, emissions reductions will appear on the G20's 2020 communiqué, with a strong focus on the carbon circular economy.

Prospects for Riyadh and Beyond

Yet to show success on its climate governance, the G20 must address at least three key issues at the Riyadh Summit.

The first is carbon removal and the carbon circular economy. Here critical trade-offs that risk making climate and social problems worse must be explicitly addressed and avoided. These trade-offs include capturing carbon from the atmosphere and "recycling" it back into the fossil fuel sector, to make it easier to extract more carbon-intensive oil or to convert it into methane for fuel in trucks, a gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Nature-based carbon storage solutions, including the Riyadh priorities of afforestation and protecting coral reefs in the Red Sea and elsewhere, also come with trade-offs. These can include planting single species forests, or "mono-forests," that damage the soil and do not support biodiversity, as well as land grabs that disproportionately affect people of colour, Indigenous peoples and poor people, with additional intersecting gender-based impacts. Unlike technology, nature is non-substitutable and must be prioritized, protected and restored; this requires thoughtful planning and execution.

The second issue is that the G20's focus on "managing emissions" while "supporting economic growth" is not conducive to the need for a 45% drop in emissions in less than 10 years and net-zero emissions in 30 years, to avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis for the most people. More G20 members have committed to the net-zero target in the past year, with nine leaders now signed up. But the G20 is more united in ignoring the medium-term target.

The third issue is that the G20 has committed only 30% of its $11 trillion COVID-19 stimulus packages to clean industries and sectors. This leaves a large funding gap for the clean technologies and nature-based solutions for carbon removal, mitigation and adaptation that are key to the G20's agenda this year. This risks reversing the positive progress made in 2019, which showed a slight reversal in global emissions growth that, for the first time, was not caused by an external shock but was attributed to sound policy decisions.

Thus, for the G20 Riyadh Summit to be successful, the leaders must:

  1. commit to identify trade-offs in their carbon removal plans to ensure that their implementation does not in practice contribute to the climate crisis and degrade work in other areas;
  2. commit to both the 45% by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 targets; and
  3. commit to revise their COVID-19 response packages to reverse the bail-out ratio to prioritize clean industries and sectors, and to support sustainable land and ocean management, while prioritizing systemic inequities and acknowledging the links between public health, climate change and environmental degradation. This would serve a dual purpose of providing much of the critical climate financing needed to meet the two medium- and longer-term climate targets.


Dispiritingly, with absent UN summitry, global climate governance in 2020 is under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, a country whose climate action is, according to Climate Action Tracker, "critically insufficient," is on track for a "4°C world" and is "not at all consistent with holding warming to below 2°C let alone with the Paris Agreement's stronger 1.5°C limit." Moreover, the United States will be represented by a climate-denier President Donald Trump. As a result, the best the G20 may be able to muster at Riyadh is a partial success that would see a few more G20 members commit to the IPCC targets, perhaps even on the sidelines.

Real hope and progress in the next year may be easier to find at the subnational and grassroots levels. But, for better or for worse, at the global summit-level, Saudi Arabia has been left to fill a gaping governance gap, until Italy takes the G20 mantle in 2021, before the UN climate and biodiversity meetings reconvene late next year.

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Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is director of compliance and lead researcher on climate change for the G20 Research Group, the G7 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 G20 and G7's compliance and governance of climate change, and the G20's governance of digitalisation. She holds a master's degree in environmental studies from York University. Follow her at @brittaneywarren.

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