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G20 Climate Action Moves at a Glaringly Glacial Pace

Brittaney Warren,
Lead Researcher on Climate and Environment, and Director, Policy Analysis, G20 Research Group, October 30, 2021

As the world's wealthiest and most powerful heads of state and government gather in Rome for their G20 summit on October 30-31, many of their citizens will be donning costumes to commemorate the Halloween holiday. But what is truly scary is the glacial pace at which G20 leaders are moving on humanity's biggest collective existential crisis. The G20's Rome climate change session has been left to the second and last day of the two-day summit. And, with countries acting in their own national self-interest rather than as trustees of the global commons, it is far from certain that the G20 will produce breakthrough collective action agreements to lower their 80% contribution to global emissions.

Wording in a draft communiqué does show some advance on a coal phase-out. This is an important shift for the G20 to make in its climate-energy policies. However, it is likely that only baby steps will be taken at Rome and the language of such a commitment will probably be crafted in a way to allow significant leeway to avoid fully "powering past coal." According to the draft of October 28, there will be a commitment to end international finance "for newly built unabated coal power generation by the end of 2021." No mention of existing coal plants appears. And on domestic coal use the leaders thus far commit only to do their best. Furthermore, "unabated coal" means coal can continue to be burned with carbon, capture, storage and utilization (CCSU) technology. Although carbon does need to be removed from the atmosphere to meet global climate goals, CCSU is an expensive and not yet scalable approach compared to nature's ability to do the job. Moreover, the carbon captured from CCSU is often used as an input to extract hard to reach gas in deep pockets of the Earth, which is a major source of the highly potent, climate-warming methane.

This approach also risks undermining the G20's initiative to reduce methane, including its International Methane Emissions Observatory created by the G20's environment and energy ministers in July 2021. Progress on methane could include a collective G20 target to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. This target was pioneered by the United States and European Union, and was joined by 2021 G20 host Italy and 2022 G20 host Indonesia, as well as the United Kingdom, Mexico and Argentina. But the main source of methane, which has 84 times the heating effect as carbon, is natural gas, which many G20 countries are expanding as an alternative to coal, casting doubt that consensus on a specific target will be reached in Rome.

Also missing will be an agreement on a G20 collective target of net zero by 2050. In recent days, some progress was made, with the climate laggards of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia declaring updated national climate targets of net zero by 2053 (Turkey) and net zero by 2060 (Saudi Arabia and Russia). China also submitted an updated target and committed to reach peak emissions before 2030, but is maintaining net zero by 2060. It is not likely that a second updated target will be announced so soon after these new targets – however inadequate – were announced.

Still, the G20 will put the spotlight on the more ambitious of the two temperature targets laid out in the Paris Agreement – the 1.5°C rather than 2°C goal. At 1.5°C the impacts of climate change will still be dangerous and prevalent, but not as much as at 2°C, making a new normal of environmental changes and disasters more easily adapted to.

But reaching the 1.5°C goal requires much faster and bolder collective action. The world saw that global leaders were capable of making swift changes and raising significant funds during the global COVID-19 pandemic. The G20 must act with the same swiftness and scale now on climate change. Although slow forward movement is already evident, real glaciers move fast once they melt, and the planet does not negotiate with polluters.

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Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is the lead researcher on climate change and environment for the G20 Research Group, the G7 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group at the University of Toronto. She is co-author of the forthcoming Reconfiguring the Global Governance of Climate Change, with John Kirton and Ella Kokotsis. 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.