FALMOUTH, England — The countries that consider themselves the planet’s natural leaders face an uncomfortable reality at the G7 summit this weekend: the future is not in their hands.
Climate change, and the attempt to thwart it, will be decided largely in Beijing, Delhi, Brasilia, Abuja, Pretoria and Jakarta — capitals already responsible for more carbon pollution than those gathering in Cornwall.
Nonetheless, the leaders of the wealthiest democracies will meet at a hotel overlooking a private beach, hoping to settle among themselves on the right mix of competition, contrition and coercion to convince the emerging great emitters to act.
Although the G7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., the U.S. and the EU — is responsible for the bulk of historical emissions, by dint of cutting down at home while emissions keep rising elsewhere, they now create a dwindling share of planet-heating greenhouse gases.
Power and relevance are shifting from the G7 to the broader G20, or even to countries like Nigeria that have yet to qualify for any of the elite geopolitical clubs.
The G7, in particular, has struggled for significance in recent years, largely because former President Donald Trump left a huge gash between the U.S. and the other powers by quitting the Paris climate accords. At the last G7 summit, in Biarritz, France two years ago, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres excoriated the leaders for not acting urgently or aggressively enough to counteract climate change. His rebuke changed little.
With Joe Biden in the White House, “the G7 … is back,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed Thursday.
On climate, that means the entire group has set goals to reach net zero emissions by 2050 (2045 in Germany’s case) and tightened their targets for this decade.
“When it comes to climate, the question is how we bring other countries to join those who want to reach climate neutrality by 2050,” said an EU official. The middle of the century, give or take a decade, is the moment humanity must stop filling the sky with carbon or the global temperature increase will soar past 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Struggling to stay relevant
But while the G7 are more united on climate, the world is increasingly difficult to manage for the self-selected club.
“No previous G7 summit since the start in 1975 has faced simultaneously such a set of crises,” said John Kirton, a University of Toronto scholar of the history of the group.
Leaders are grappling with the fallout from the pandemic that wreaked chaos on their economies and killed millions; the rise of authoritarian powers like Russia and China; as well as climate change.
In response to the pandemic, the G7 finally appear to be lining up a huge delivery of vaccine doses to the developing world. But they have been less forthcoming about shipping giant sums of financial assistance to developing countries to entice them into embracing green objectives.
Ahead of November’s COP26 global climate conference in Glasgow, the U.K. is asking all countries to raise their climate goals. Developing countries have traditionally viewed such appeals with skepticism. Send money, they say, and we’ll clean up the problem rich, developed nations created.
The message from India, said Laurence Tubiana, the CEO of the European Climate Foundation, is that some of the trillions spent supporting furloughed Westerners through the pandemic might have been better spent easing the agony elsewhere.
“It is portrayed now more and more as a zero sum game. If this is the feeling, we cannot really have a success in Glasgow,” she said.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported this week that unless clean energy investment in emerging and developing economies jumps seven-fold to $1 trillion annually by 2030, their emissions will balloon by 5 billion tons in two decades — around the same amount the EU will cut down by becoming climate neutral.
Meeting developing country demands is both a “moral responsibility,” said IEA chief Fatih Birol, and a “rational move.”
But G7 countries have been slow to stump up the cash. Leaders are expected this week to reiterate a collective developed country commitment to deliver $100 billion in public climate finance every year. But they were supposed to do that by last year, and missed the mark by around $20 billion.
Filling the gap is likely to be a major appetite spoiler when leaders in Carbis Bay sit down to their haggis mousse. Germany and the EU have been sniping with the U.K. for weeks over whose turn it is to stump up.
That unreliability, combined with the climate scars left by Trump, undermines the group’s efforts to export its climate ambition to the rest of the world.
Their withering influence is clear from the four countries U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has invited as guests to this year’s meeting: Australia, South Africa, South Korea and India. All are big G20 emitters, with coal-fuelled economies — exactly the type he wants to convince to go green. But none of them have significantly changed their climate goals for 2030: a key plank of Johnson’s COP26 ask.
Adding to the disarray, while the G7 may have adopted similar long-term climate goals, there are deep divisions over the measures needed to get there.
The EU is moving ahead with a sharp-elbowed policy to tax carbon emissions for steel, aluminum, cement, fertilizers and electricity at its border.
Other G7 countries accept such policies will be necessary to stop industry shifting overseas as they clamp down on emissions. The EU and U.S. leaders will say so at a summit next Tuesday, according to a draft statement seen by POLITICO. A German official said they were hoping for the summit to “provide a strong impetus” on coordinating this approach.
But the U.S. — where Republicans are implacably opposed to carbon pricing or taxation — has been ambivalent, warning Europe that the policy will be politically explosive. China, Brazil, India and South Africa have already slammed it. On Wednesday, before stepping aboard his flight to the U.K., Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would “reject” carbon border tariffs, which he described as “simply trade protectionism by another name.”
Coordination on this measure is expected to elude this meeting.
Despite the G7’s loss of economic, political and emissions heft, there is need to coordinate a response to climate change, said Rachel Kyte, the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“For the life of me, I don’t know how we get speed and scale in the energy transition without more effective coordination on carbon pricing, on taxonomies, and collaboration on border adjustments and trade rules,” she said. “There are things that you want to compete on, but you shouldn’t be competing on survival. This is not the ‘Hunger Games.'”
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