The location of the 2021 G20 summit is heavy with symbolism. As world leaders fly into la città eterna, parallels with the last days of the Roman empire feel almost unavoidable – only this time human civilization stands on the brink of decimation by climate change.
As the climate crisis deepens, keeping warming to the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees remains possible, but only just. Unprecedented action this decade is needed or there is little chance of avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of a changing climate.
That is why COP26, taking place right after the G20 leaders’ summit, is so important. The aim of the conference is not to broker a new international climate change treaty but to ensure the 1.5 degree target set out in the one the world already has – the 2015 Paris Agreement – stays within reach.
G20 needs to make substantial progress
The countries of the G20, accounting for 80 per cent of global emissions, hold the fate of COP26 in the palms of their hands. Several are yet to submit their enhanced 2030 emission reduction targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and getting the group’s members on board is critical for making substantial progress globally on key issues such as phasing out coal.
A strong and clear political signal on climate change from Rome would certainly help pave the way for an ambitious outcome at COP26. It is worth underscoring, however, that even a lack of headline-grabbing announcements at the G20 leaders’ summit need not necessarily mean gloom and despair.
On some key issues, Rome may be instrumental in advancing discussions while COP26 is the platform where new pledges are communicated. So, from Rome to Glasgow, what needs to happen?
At their meeting in Naples in July, the G20’s environment and energy ministers stated they ‘intend to update or communicate ambitious NDCs by COP26’. With mere days to go until Glasgow, it is time to deliver.
G20 countries which have not yet submitted a new NDC must do so at COP26 at the latest and, equally important, countries which have communicated a second NDC without raising their ambition – such as Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico – need to bring a stronger offer to the table as well. While the low level of ambition in China’s new NDC was expected, it is nevertheless a huge disappointment.
Secondly, the ‘tone in Rome’ matters. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, a gap between actual targets and the targets needed to align with a 1.5 degree pathway will likely remain. COP26 therefore needs to broker a plan for accelerating action and ambition over the next few years.
A clear commitment by the G20 on the 1.5 degree target in its communique would provide critical impetus to these efforts. An explicit reference to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 would also be an important signal from the group.
Transitioning away from coal
Thirdly, coal must go. Transitioning away from the most polluting fossil fuel is essential for keeping the 1.5 degree target within reach. The economic case is compelling too.
In a growing number of countries, the cost of constructing new solar utility-scale projects is increasingly lower than simply running existing coal plants, and recent spikes in energy prices further underscore the benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels – infamous for their price volatility – to renewable forms of energy.
A G20 deal on ending public finance for coal projects overseas would be a positive step forward, but the G20 countries must also address domestic coal use and production.
Finally, money. Between 2015-19, the G20 countries provided $3.3 trillion in various forms of subsidies for fossil-fuelled power, despite having signed the Paris Agreement. No-one describes this phenomenon better than John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, who said: ‘If you want a definition of insanity, it’s subsidising the very problem you are trying to solve’.
An important deliverable for Rome is for G20 countries to agree on a date – preferably 2025 – for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies domestically. But the issue of money runs deeper.
Finance is at the very heart of the climate talks. In 2009, developed countries promised to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries. A ‘delivery plan’, published on 25 October, shows that the goal – which was never enough to meet the needs of developing countries but essential for maintaining trust and unlocking progress in other areas – will likely only be met in 2023.