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To Postpone or to Respond: That Is the Climate Question G20 Leaders Need to Answer

Brittaney Warren, G20 Research Group
November 21, 2020

G20 leaders meet virtually this weekend for the Riyadh Summit, November 21-22, under the 2020 Saudi presidency. The main event is centred on the global COVID-19 health crisis, which is dominating the leaders' digital discussions and their work. Climate change, while on the agenda, is taking a backseat. This is evident in host King Salman's opening remarks where the familiar term "climate change" was replaced by the more elusive term "climate goals." Although climate goals implies those set by the Paris Agreement, this may be a semantics trick and a refusal to recognize the science and urgency behind climate change. King Salman also highlighted the circular carbon economy as "an effective means" to achieve climate goals, and indeed avoided any mention of the Paris Agreement at all.

King Salman's broader environmental goals, all critical for mitigating emissions and for adaptation, were to combat land degradation and to conserve coral reefs and biodiversity. However, greenhouse gas emissions are a major threat to the land and the sea. This is particularly true for coral reefs whose ocean habitat is the largest carbon sink with now hotter temperatures bleaching and destroying them around the world. It is therefore critical that all countries support the multilateral United Nations climate process and not shy away from supporting the Paris Agreement. The leaders must recognize that the climate crisis is directly related to the health and economic crises.

There are some G20 leaders pushing for stronger climate action at the Riyadh Summit.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson is thus far taking the lead. Johnson has a particular responsibility to do so as host of the UN's 26th Conference of the Parties, which he postponed until November 1-12, 2021, leaving a significant gap in climate governance for the G20 forum to try to fill. In his recorded message before the start of the Riyadh Summit, Johnson took the opportunity to promote the United Kingdom's domestic work on climate change, including a recently released Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution in the UK to "symbiotically tackle climate change and drive our economic recovery." He also complimented the Saudi city of Neom on its innovations on green hydrogen and solar energy, and promoted the Climate Ambition Summit that he will hold on December 12, 2020, as a placeholder for COP26.

This substitute Climate Ambition Summit is an invitation for world leaders to submit recorded messages announcing new commitments and raised ambition to support implementation of the Paris Agreement's three pillars of mitigation, adaptation and climate finance. The specific call is to announce more ambitious nationally determined contributions, long-term strategies that set new pathways to net-zero emissions, climate finance commitments to support the most vulnerable, and ambitious adaptation plans and policies. It is being co-hosted by Italy, which holds the 2021 G20 presidency; France, host of the 2019 G7 summit in Biarritz; Chile, host of COP25 (until Spain took over due to civil unrest in Chile); and the UN.

Of the seven leaders who recorded brief statements for the G20 Side Event on Pandemic Preparedness and Response on November 21, only the two G20 Climate Ambition Summit co-hosts mentioned climate change or the environment. Italy's Giuseppe Conte connected the economic recovery from COVID-19 to the environment, stating that investments were needed "while supporting environmental and social resilience." France's Emmanuel Macron stated that "we need a concerted effort for the common good for our planet …by continuing the struggle for climate and biodiversity." The other leaders were King Salman, Argentina's Alberto Fernandez, Germany's Angela Merkel, Korea's Moon Jae-in and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa.

Other G20 members that have shown signals of raising their climate ambition include China, which recently committed to carbon neutrality by 2060, albeit 10 years after the recommended net-zero 2050 target, and Canada, which recently unveiled new plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Yet it remains to be seen if, like the UN climate summit, G20 members will postpone raising their ambition or respond to the UK's calls for greater ambition both in the G20 leaders' communiqué soon to be released and in the weeks that follow.

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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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