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Ambitious Words, Constrained Commitments:
G20 Energy Performance at the 2020 Riyadh Summit

Ella Kokotsis, G20 Research Group

This year's G20 summit, chaired by first-time host Saudi Arabia, was a highly subdued affair, taking place amidst reduced expectations about the Saudis delivering any substantive, concrete outcomes. The typical pomp and ceremony of these elaborate, grand summits was supplanted by an austere online virtual gathering, with its most controversial participant, U.S. president Donald Trump accused of ducking out early.

During their two-day summit, G20 leaders attempted to grapple with many very complex global issues, with the raging pandemic taking centre stage. The impact of COVID-19 resonated throughout the leaders' final declaration, straddling sections related to global health, trade, finance, travel and tourism, transportation, the digital economy, sustainable development, education, women's empowerment, migration and displacement.

Energy and its closely related environment subjects were no exception. The declaration linked the pandemic with environmental issues, sustainability, conservation and restoration, noting that tackling climate change and extreme weather events are "among the most pressing challenges of our time." But with the pandemic creating massive uncertainty in global energy markets, was the G20 able to galvanize the support needed to ensure that reliable, accessible, affordable and cleaner energy remained top of mind? After all, without that, the ability to power essential services, including those related to health care, would be severely compromised.

Here G20 leaders delivered a mixed performance. The leaders' declaration scored high on ambition, but relatively low on providing timely, tangible and targeted energy commitments. Indeed, the leaders made only four commitments on energy, or 4% of their total 107 commitments across all subjects (see Appendix). On energy, the G20 stressed the criticality of expediting universal access through a stable, uninterrupted and affordable energy supply in response to the pandemic's challenges. Yet they fell short of outlining specific measures on how to expedite access universally. As global energy leaders, the G20 could have used their unique position and responsibility to adopt common principles on energy transitions. But instead, they relegated the choice of various fuel and technology options to individual countries, in line with their own national strategies.

Although the leaders acknowledged the importance of promoting free, open and competitive international energy markets, the Riyadh declaration fell short on specifying actions needed to create undisrupted energy flow and market stability.

The leaders did, however, endorse the G20 Initiative on Clean Cooking and Energy Access, an important step in acknowledging the need for universal energy access in underpinning many aspects of sustainable development and economic growth. With nearly a billion people lacking access to electrification and nearly 3 billion people still in need of clean cooking facilities, the G20 pledged to continue addressing financing gaps in off-track countries through building extra capacity, supporting institutions and enabling frameworks that leverage public-private partnerships.

Finally, a welcome and somewhat unexpected surprise came on fossil fuel subsidies. With G20 energy ministers avoiding any reference to fossil fuel subsidies in their September communiqué, skepticism emerged as to whether the leaders themselves would address fossil fuels in any meaningful way. In the end, a deal was struck between the European Union and Saudi Arabia whereby the EU endorsed Saudi Arabia's vision for a circular carbon economy in exchange for a "joint commitment" on the "phasing-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption." The G20 went one step further, by referencing "targeted support for the poorest" — a clear recognition that, globally, such subsidies disproportionately benefit wealthier rather than poorer households. This was a positive outcome, given the disproportionate 55% of money allocated to fossil fuels as part of pandemic recovery measures worldwide, compared to only 35% for clean energy.

Despite the tumult created by the outgoing U.S. president, the overall display of unity across the G20 at this year's Riyadh Summit comfortably laid the foundation for Italy to assume the presidency in 2021, backed by the added confidence that the G20 will have a predictable and trusted ally in the White House once again.

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Appendix: G20 Riyadh Summit Energy Commitments

2020-97: We stress our continued resolve to ensure a stable and uninterrupted supply of energy to achieve economic growth as we respond to the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

2020-98: We endorse the G20 Initiative on Clean Cooking

2020-99: [We endorse the] … Energy Access and G20 Energy Security and Markets Stability Cooperation.

2020-100: We reaffirm our joint commitment on medium term rationalization and phasing-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption, while providing targeted support for the poorest.

Note: Identified by Brittaney Warren

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Denisse RudichElla Kokotsis has attended most G7 summits since 1994, has written broadly on various aspects of summitry and global governance, has directed the research and publication of numerous analytical documents, and has spoken extensively at summit-related conferences worldwide. Her scholarly research methodology for assessing summit compliance continues to serve as the basis for the annual accountability reports produced by the G20, G7 and BRICS Research Groups. She is the author of Keeping International Commitments: Compliance, Credibility and the G7 Summits and co-author of The Global Governance of Climate Change.


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