Leaders of the world’s largest economies agreed Sunday to stop funding coal-fired power plants in developing countries and made a vague commitment to achieve carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century” as they concluded a Rome summit ahead of the much larger United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
While Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron described the Group of 20 summit as a success, the outcome disappointed climate activists, the United Nations Secretary-General, and Britain’s Prime Minister. The United Kingdom is hosting the two-week Glasgow conference and had hoped for more ambitious goals to emerge from Rome. The G-20 commitments, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are “drops in a rapidly warming ocean.” The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, agreed that the outcome was insufficient.
The G-20 countries account for more than three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, and Britain had hoped for a “G-20 bounce” ahead of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Environmentalists and scientists have called the United Nations conference the world’s “last best hope” for securing commitments to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. The summit exposed the continuing divides between Western countries, which historically polluted the planet the most but are now seeing emissions decline, and emerging economies, led by China, whose emissions are rising as their economies grow.
Britain advocated for a commitment to achieve climate neutrality or net-zero emissions by 2050, implying a balance between greenhouse gases added to and removed from the atmosphere.
The United States and the European Union have set 2050 as their target date for reaching net-zero emissions, while China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have set 2060 as their target date. The leaders of those three countries did not attend the summit in Rome. Draghi of Italy stated that the declaration went further on climate than any previous G-20 statement. He noted that it referred to keeping the 1.5-degree global warming target within reach, which science shows will be difficult to achieve unless the world drastically reduces fossil-fuel emissions.
Western countries have shifted away from such financing, and major Asian economies have followed suit: Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the United Nations General Assembly that Beijing would no longer fund such projects, and Japan and South Korea made similar pledges earlier this year.
However, China has not set a deadline for completing domestic coal plant construction. Coal is still China’s primary source of power generation, and both China and India have resisted G-20 proposals to phase out domestic coal consumption.
Britain was disappointed by the G-20’s failure to set a target for phasing out domestic coal use. However, Johnson’s spokesperson, Max Blain, stated that the G-20 communique “was never intended to be the main lever in order to secure commitments on climate change,” noting that these would be hammered out at the Glasgow summit.
He emphasized the agreement to “recall and reaffirm” their long-overdue commitment to provide $100 billion in aid to poorer countries and to “stress the importance of meeting that goal fully as soon as possible,” rather than stating that they were ready to contribute the full amount.
Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate, two young climate activists, issued an open letter to the media as the G-20 concluded, emphasizing three fundamental aspects of the climate crisis that are frequently overlooked: that time is running out, that any solution must provide justice to those most affected, and that the biggest polluters frequently hide behind incomplete statistics about their true emissions.
The leaders also stated that they would continue to work on a French initiative to re-channel $100 billion in financial aid to needier African countries in the form of special drawing rights – a foreign exchange tool used to help finance imports allocated by the International Monetary Fund and also received by advanced countries.
The leaders stated that they were “working on actionable options” to accomplish this, and that the $100 billion figure was set as a “total global ambition” rather than an absolute commitment. Individual countries have already voluntarily reallocated approximately $45 billion. The commitment reflects concern that the post-pandemic recovery is diverging, with wealthy countries rebounding faster due to extensive vaccinations and stimulus spending.