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The G7's Pre-Cornwall Summit: Is the G7 Acting Like Its House Is on Fire?

Brittaney Warren, Lead Researcher on Climate Change and Environment, G7 Research Group
February 19, 2021

On February 19, 2021, the G7 met for a "pre-summit summit" under the leadership of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On climate change, the G7 leaders laid a solid foundation for the regular G7 summit scheduled for June 11-13, in the seaside town of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, England. But, as usual, they need to do much more.

Today's meeting was virtual, as the COVID-19 pandemic and its new and more easily transmissible diseases, and still too few people vaccinated, continue to restrict travelling. Yet although the meeting was convened with COVID-19 at the top of everyone's minds, it did not completely crowd out climate change. Johnson no doubt wanted to make up for the time lost last year, when the 2020 U.S. host — President Donald Trump — failed to hold a G7 summit and the United Nations postponed its climate and biodiversity conferences. The UK is also co-hosting the 2021 UN climate conference — the 26th Conference of the Parties — with Italy in November and is chairing a climate security conference on February 23. It has therefore made climate change a top policy priority.

The UK launched its 2021 leadership role by setting an example on climate action. It announced in December 2020 a new emissions reduction target of 68% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. This goal is in line with the recommendations of the UN's scientific climate council — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This medium-term target puts the UK on a path to reach its longer-term target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Its goals are backed by a 10-point US$16 billion investment plan to create high-skill green jobs and advance renewable energies, to spur a "green industrial revolution." However, the UK's actions are not completely consistent with meeting these goals. Among the first sponsors of its COP26 conference is a prominent gas power company. Natural gas produces methane emissions that are devastating from a climate perspective. Methane is 84 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is, even though carbon dioxide is a more common greenhouse gas. Methane-producing gas has serious consequences for both planetary and human health. This sponsorship sends mixed signals on the UK's climate action.

Despite this, the UK's leadership has had some impact on its peers. At February's virtual meeting all leaders agreed for the first time as a group to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This is the strongest such target the G7 has collectively agreed to. At the Heiligendamm Summit in 2007, three G7 members — the European Union, Canada and Japan — committed to reduce their emissions by 50% by 2050. Their G7 peers agreed to "seriously consider" doing the same. In 2008 at the Hokkaido Summit, all G7 members committed to adopt the 50% by 2050 target at the UN's 2009 Copenhagen Summit, while encouraging "all countries" to do the same. When 2009 came, the G7 raised their ambition. At their 2009 L'Aquila Summit, they agreed that developed countries would reduce their emissions by at least 80% by 2050 and added a baseline year of 1990, while still encouraging all other countries to adopt the 50% target. The last time the G7 reaffirmed the 80% target was at the Deauville Summit in 2011. In 2015 at Elmau they committed to a "low−carbon global economy … striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050." Between 2016 and 2020, curiously after the Paris Agreement was signed but, less curiously, coinciding with the arrival of staunch climate change denier Donald Trump as U.S. president, such targets disappeared off the agenda. The 2021 net-zero target is thus a strengthened reincarnation of the G7's emissions reduction targets. Further, it was embedded in a longer commitment to "deliver a green transformation and clean energy transitions" that simultaneously cut emissions and "create good jobs."

The leaders made two other climate commitments. One woas to "make progress" on implementing the three core pillars of the Paris Agreement — mitigation, adaptation and finance. The other was to put both climate change and biodiversity loss "at the centre of our plans." The G7 therefore linked climate change with biodiversity and with decent work. The commitment on climate and biodiversity, which centred on the two UN 2021 summits on climate (COP26) and biodiversity (COP15), also have the potential to improve public health. The sentence that precedes this commitment states that "recovery from COVID-19 must build back better for all." This suggests that the "plans" referred to by the G7 members are their COVID-19 economic recovery plans. If so, despite the lack of specificity on how to achieve this, this would be an important advancement given the pandemic recovery packages are more brown than green. Making climate change and biodiversity a central part of the recovery plans is critical for preparedness for future health crises, with environmental destruction a key root cause of the spread of infectious diseases.

In all, the G7 released a short one-page communiqué of six paragraphs and 27 commitments. Climate change was referenced in one of these paragraphs with its three politically binding climate commitments. Not surprisingly, health took a larger portion of commitments, with eight. This was followed by development and international cooperation with four each, and macroeconomic policy with three. Coming after climate change was trade with two commitments and, lastly, the digital economy, international taxation and jobs each with one. Thus climate change was not completely obscured by the COVID-19 crisis, ranking sixth by number of commitments made and tied with the economy. Further, at the November 2020 Riyadh Summit, the G20 made a total of 107 commitments but only three climate ones: the G7 outperformed on making climate commitments as a percentage of its 27 total.

The G7's pre-Cornwall Summit meeting therefore saw a rise in members' ambitions when measured against the group's own historic performance and against the G20's recent performance on similar commitments. Still, no G7 member is on track to meet its emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement and not all G7 members have a 2030 target to help realize their 2050 target. If the world followed the G7's lead, the global average temperature would far surpass the 2°C goal of the Paris Agreement — a milestone that would usher in untold, but foreseen, suffering. 

Climate change is at once a wicked and a simple problem. It is simple in that we have more information than ever to understand such a problem, including who caused it, why we caused it and how we can solve it. Humanity knows a myriad of effective solutions, and has readily available knowledge and technology to implement those solutions on a widespread scale. In short, we know what to do and we have the tools to do it. The most wicked aspect of climate change is not its complexity, but its creators' complacency. Although the G7's advances should be recognized, its members are not acting as if their own house is on fire. Unless the G7 leaders are betting on a ticket to Mars, they will need to do much more much faster at their Cornwall Summit in June. For the rest of us, escaping our burning Earth home is not an option.

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