G20 Draws New Political Lines in Climate Governance

The G20 is an exclusive club of countries with economic might and political heft, perhaps particularly when it comes to climate change. This year, the G20 communiqué told us a good deal about the divisive future of global climate politics, and very little about the future of climate policy.

As a collection of the world’s largest emitters, what the G20 says aboutclimate change matters. It’s words and signals often presage important future climate change decisions in other international fora. In 2013, the G20 Leaders’ Declaration expressed support for using the Montreal Protocol (part of the global ozone regime) to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a group of particularly potent greenhouse gases (GHGs). The choice of venue – the Montreal Protocol – was controversial. After three years of subsequent negotiations, parties to the Protocol adopted the Kigali Amendment to address HFCs.

Other recent G20 summits have affirmed commitments to “rationalise and phase-out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption,” such as the 2015 G20 communiqué. This language ultimately found itself in SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production.

The 2016 G20 Summit was a platform for the US and China to ratify the Paris Agreement, triggering a succession of ratifications that would make the Paris Agreement the fastest treaty to every enter into force. That summit also featured discussions of decarbonization pathways. This foreshadowed long-term low-GHG emissions development strategies put forward by 12 members of the G20, including Canada, Brazil, Germany, and the US. These strategies lay out how countries will seek to continue economic growth while decarbonizing their economies by 2050.

The G20 Summit has engaged in climate policy and sends important signals about the future actions of major economies, and perhaps the global community.

But this year, the signals are overwhelmingly political. I see three takeaways from the 2017 G20 Summit for global climate politics:

  1. The G19 will stand up to the US, and is willing to use climate change as the platform to do so. There were other issues on which leaders disagreed. Other fissures that could crack open. On climate, the G19 took its stand. Perhaps this is because the divide is easy to communicate – either for against the Paris Agreement. It was also politically safe – 153 countries ratified the Paris Agreement (to date), so the G19 can be said to stand with the world. Still was a simple way to draw the lines in the emerging world order.
  2. Leaders progressive on climate change guarded against a Trump contagion. There are other members of the G20 that may be less keen on transitioning to a low-carbon economic system. Saudi Arabia and Russia come to mind. If the US shakes confidence in the overall support for a transition, other may follow its lead and withdraw. Leaders decided it was better to isolate the US than to allow Trump’s stance to sow discontent. The solidarity of the G19 keeps the US in quarantine, at least for now.
  3. This outcome does little for climate action. It is a fact, not a political stance, that the Paris Agreement is irreversible. Much of the other climate-related language is very similar to previous G20 outcomes. The G20 sent a message of commitment and solidarity while remaining stagnant on fossil fuel subsidies and other key climate issues. In that sense, the US did undermine the outcome. Their intransigence delayed and averted discussion of any real issues.

True to form, the G20 may have foreshadowed climate politics to come. The next climate meeting is in November. It will be the first meeting since Trump withdrew from the agreement, a decision that doesn’t take effect until after the next US Presidential election. This means the US is still a party, and still able to participate in the negotiations for the Paris Agreement’s rule book.

If the G20 Summit is an indication, the US could try play an obstructionist role in these important negotiations. The US could slow the negotiations (which are already at a crawling pace) to operationalize an Agreement it has no intention of participating in. The G20 also signals that other countries will stand up and oppose such attempts.

Or, the US could take the hint not-so-subtly sent by the G20 and step aside, allowing those committed to the Paris Agreement to engage in the negotiations. Soon, we’ll see which G20 trend plays out at the UN climate talks.

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