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Holding the G7 Environment Ministers' Meeting to the Highest Standard

Brittaney Warren and John Kirton, G7 Research Group, May 19, 2021

On May 20–21, 2021, G7 climate and environment ministers will meet virtually, three weeks before their leaders assemble in Cornwall for their summit on June 11–14. It is hoped that the environment ministers' meeting will provide a down payment and a boost for progress at the Cornwall Summit, where climate change, biodiversity and the environment feature as a top-tier priority on paper, and from there the G20 summit in Rome on October 30–31 and the UN's climate summit in Glasgow on November 1–12. According to data from the G7 Research Group, a pre-summit environment ministerial meeting is one of the strongest predictors of whether G7 members will comply with the climate change commitments the G7 leaders make.

Yet history has shown that the G7 is often not serious about taking responsibility for its actions, as its members collectively continue to contribute an important share of all global greenhouse gas emissions, to spend billions on fossil fuels while claiming to not have enough public money to finance renewable energy or nature and species preservation, and to not respect Indigenous rights to self-government and whose land governance is known to ensure better ecological outcomes.

The global average temperature continues to rise, rapidly outpacing government action and approaching critical thresholds. There is no time to give gold stars to those who knew they should have been doing more for decades and who have all of the resources at their fingertips to do better. There is no time left to lose. We need big, bold, coordinated action by the richest democracies of the world.

The G7 environment ministerial meeting is one step on the road to the leaders' meeting.

G7 Environment Ministerial Performance, 1992–2020

In all, the G7 environment ministers have made 649 climate commitments in the 22 times they met between 1992 and 2020. Those commitments seem to be strongly influenced by the presence of a high-level UN summit that same year. Peaks in the number of commitments came in 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was signed; in 2009, when the Copenhagen Accord was signed; and in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was signed. In the post–UN summit years, the number of commitments was always lower.

The G7 Research Group has assessed 35 of these ministerial commitments for compliance by G7 members in the year after they were made. The findings show that the overall average is worryingly low, at only 51%. This number could rise with the assessment of more commitments, including ones that fill gaps in missing years. The available data do show a rising trend in compliance over time, although it only rose from 40% from the 1997 Miami meeting to 57% at the 2017 Bologna meeting, the last year with assessed ministerial climate commitments.

This puts an even greater pressure on the UK environment ministers' meeting to do better. On commitment making, the meeting in Halifax in September 2018 with 69 commitments and the one in Metz, France in 2019 with 131 commitments both generated more climate commitment than previous meetings. Yet the number of commitments does not a successful summit make. If the G7 environment ministers and their leaders complied with just the single commitment to end all fossil fuel subsidies, this would have a much greater, tangible effect on emissions reduction than somewhat complying with many commitments.

Yet by actually meeting, the G7 environment ministers in 2021 will fill the great gap left in 2020, when the United States led by Donald Trump, as G7 host, chose not to hold an environment ministerial or even a leaders' level regular summit. The 2021 meeting is expected to build on the relative environmental advances made at several ad hoc summits in 2021, notably the G7 Virtual Summit hosted by UK prime minister Boris Johnson on February 19 and the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by U.S. president Joe Biden on April 22–23. Yet even there Indigenous youth demanded much more and said the world's so-called leaders continue to fall short.

The Preparatory Process

In planning its suite of ministerial meetings for its year as G7 host, the UK government included one for environment ministers from the start, resuming the pattern since 2016, and alongside several other ministerial meetings.

Of these, most recently the G7 foreign and development ministers met in London on May 4–5. They made 162 commitments in the main communiqué. Climate change came in eighth place with nine commitments, taking 6% of all commitments made. Its presence confirmed that climate change was indeed a security issue, as Boris Johnson argued before the UN Security Council several weeks earlier. The climate change section came near the end of the ministers' very long communiqué. Eight of the commitments on climate change focused on finance, with three of these on the InsuResilience Global Partnership. Subjects referenced in the commitments included nature-based solutions, agriculture and water. Key actors referenced included women and girls, Indigenous peoples and the private sector. The Paris Agreement and 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) that the UK will co-host with Italy in November were central. Six of the commitments used highly binding language, suggesting that higher compliance with them would come. Two new focuses stood out. One was to channel some of the promised $100 billion per year in climate financing to gender equality and to the inclusion of marginalized peoples, including Indigenous peoples. On Indigenous peoples it fell short by making no meaningful commitment to respect Indigenous sovereignty, to stop violence against Indigenous peoples or to stop infringing on Indigenous land rights. The second was a highly specific commitment to develop "specific detailed actions" on climate risks in the agriculture sector before COP 26.

In the lead-up to the environment ministers' meeting, the UK argued for ambitious commitments, to set an example for China, India and others to follow. Italy and Japan have been reluctant, even though Italy is co-hosing COP 26 and is hosting the G20 in late October. Alok Sharma, the UK minister responsible for the Glasgow meeting, said on May 14 that the COP must end international coal financing and have countries abandon coal energy, with the G7 in the lead. Italy faced resistance from its energy firms. Japan, still suffering from the Fukushima disaster in 2011, argues it needs to fire up most of its 36 nuclear reactors to meet its promise of net zero by 2050.

The UK did adopt a stronger 2030 target and is consistently pushing a message to the international community to step up its ambition. But its recent domestic efforts include loopholes, such as on its recently announced burning peatland ban, that call into question its actual dedication to raising ambition. Moreover, Sharma's corporate background and history as the former secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy make him well connected with the corporate and banking elite, raising questions about whose voices will be most heard on the road to COP 26. The private sector will need to be involved in climate action, but too cozy a relationship can signal an unwillingness of governments to implement environmental rules, such as polluter pays, without including loopholes that support a business-as-usual pathway. Meeting with such firms as JP Morgan Chase, the largest banking funder of fossil fuels globally, sends the wrong signal indeed. Moreover, the UK recently named a top executive of Canada's largest oil company a "climate champion." Summit institutions and its leaders are not immune to greenwashing.

On the eve of the environment meeting, a draft of the ministerial statement reported on May 17 showed convergence on commitments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, end coal use and set a date to end government financing for climate-polluting energy sources, and showed the UK seeking more climate finance for a just transition, especially in developing countries. It is doubtful, however, that the G7 will eliminate the word "inefficient" fossil fuel subsidies from its commitment, one that the leaders themselves have made since 2009 through the G20 and since 2015 through the G7, and have thus far failed to comply with.

On ending coal use, the draft statement promised a G7 move from "unabated coal capacity" by 2030, allowing those using carbon capture or similar technology to continue to use coal. It promised an "absolute end" to new, direct government financing of unabated coal energy in 2021, including through development assistance, export finance, investment and trade promotion. It also promised support for the workers, regions and communities that an unplanned energy transition would harm. It allowed that members claiming "exceptional circumstances" could escape these commitments.

On fossil fuel subsidies, earlier G7 efforts to phase them out were halted by disagreements over definitions of what they were and a specific timetable for ending them. The reward for doing so is enormous. The International Monetary Fund estimated that in 2017 such subsidies cost $5.2 trillion or 6.5% of global gross domestic product and produced 28% of carbon emissions in 2015. These subsidies were led in turn by China, the United States, Russia and India (all G20 members). There were thus some limits to what the G7 could do on its own the reap the rewards. But all G7 members pay polluters to produce fossil fuels, with Canada having among the highest per capita emissions in the world and United States the highest absolute emissions. Passing the buck to non-G7 members in the face of a global crisis of unprecedented proportions is not an acceptable excuse for continuing to subsidize oil companies and name them climate champions.

The G7 could consider carbon border adjustments, or green tariffs, on products from countries that subsidize the fossil fuels that produce traded goods. The European Union plans to move in this direction in the coming year.

On some financial aspects of these initiatives, Italy was reluctant to commit but did so on the meeting's eve. Roberto Cingolani, minister for ecological transition, confirmed that Italy fully backed the UK's G7 environmental goals, including the move away from coal, ideally with a substantial reduction by 2025. Italy also would increase financing for developing countries to do so. Italy, as chair of the G20 and co-chair of the Glasgow summit, felt pressured to be change course.  

In the United States Joe Biden has already promised to end U.S,. fossil fuel subsides and U.S. government financing of fossil fuels. The question of what the U.S. considers such a subsidy remains.

The G7 environment ministers' meeting could also commit to collectively cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, as all members offered commitments that make this average feasible, just before or at the Leaders Summit on Climate in April. The U.S. promised cuts of 50–52% by 2030, Japan 46% by 2030, the EU 55% by 2030 (from 1990 levels) and Canada 40–45% by 2030. The UK promised 78% by 2035 (from 1990). Indigenous youth called for net zero by 2030, which seems aligned with the climate science and pace of real-world climate events.

The G7 environment ministers will likely call on other major emitters to join them, as China, India and Russia offered virtually nothing new at the Leaders Summit on Climate and the durability of Brazil's commitment remains in doubt.

Conclusion

Thus at the G7's environment ministers' meeting we are likely to see something in the communiqué on coal and coal financing, fossil fuel subsides and perhaps even carbon border tariffs or the climate-trade link. The environment, including nature-based solutions such as forest conservation, should also make an appearance.

In terms of the level  of ambition to expect, the environment ministers are not the finance ministers and their political power and influence are limited. They are also bound to their domestic climate priorities, which within the G7 are highly contradictory. Those priorities include leaders' statements on the climate emergency and the need to raise ambition alongside continued financial support and political backing for new fossil fuel infrastructure, often despite the opposition of the Indigenous peoples in the relevant G7 countries. Against this background, having realistic expectations of what the meeting can achieve may be viewed as more fair. But, most of the world's citizens likely consider it unfair to be forced to face rising seas and sinking lands, incursions into land and human rights, prospects of re-locating to higher ground or new lands, breathing cloudy air and drinking cloudy water, and on and on.

The G7 and its ministers, having governed climate change for over four decades, cannot credibly claim to be limited in resources and influence. If the G7 wants to claim status as the world's richest and most powerful "club," then it behooves the rest of us to hold its members to the highest standard.

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