Climate change has traditionally been a key item on the agenda at Group of 20 summits. This year, even as host nation Japan pledges to lead on the issue, experts worry that no notable action will be taken by the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations.
The pessimism stems from signals that have already been sent ahead of the conference, set to begin Friday in the Japanese city of Osaka. Experts on climate change say the Trump administration’s climate skepticism, coupled with President Trump’s readiness to start trade wars, has caused world leaders to carefully avoid running afoul of Washington’s position on the issue.
For countries looking to remain in Trump’s good graces, toning down their rhetoric on climate change appears to be a necessary sacrifice, said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Japan and the United States are engaged in trade talks, and Japan hopes to stave off tariffs on its auto sector. Trade and security concerns may be outranking environmental priorities, Patrick said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised his country will lead on the issue, but ahead of this year’s G-20 summit, Japan drafted a relatively tepid conference communique, the Financial Times reported earlier this week. The document is softer on climate change than previous G-20 statements, leaving out the phrases “global warming” and “decarbonization.”
A meeting of G-20 environmental and energy ministers earlier this month produced a carefully worded statement that notably had few mentions of the Paris climate accord. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler pledged ahead of time to steer that conversation toward ocean litter instead — and trash is indeed what made headlines coming out of that meeting.
These developments are symptoms of shifting global head winds on climate change, experts say, as Trump continues to signal that the United States is no longer interested in leading on the issue. The Trump administration has repeatedly challenged the scientific consensus on climate change and undercut efforts to address it.
Last year saw record-high global carbon emissions, and a United Nations expert warned in a report this week that climate change is likely to lead to widespread human rights infringements, particularly for the world’s poorest.
Past G-20 summits have provided forums for leaders of the world’s largest economies to devise plans to mitigate the escalating climate crisis. At the 2009 meeting, they agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. After Trump announced in 2017 that the United States would exit the Paris climate agreement, the other 19 members of the G-20 reaffirmed their commitment to the “irreversible” accord — a stance that appeared to underscore the Trump administration’s isolation on the matter.
Two years later, Trump may have succeeded in tamping down the urgency on climate change by shifting the conversation with world leaders toward access to the U.S. market.
Experts said that allowing short-term objectives to outweigh action on climate change is misguided.
World leaders would need to take “unprecedented” action to curb emissions to prevent a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in a 2018 report. At the current rate of emissions, the group projected that global temperatures could surpass this point by 2040 — probably causing catastrophic sea level rises and the near-total death of coral reefs.
Despite the “narrow window” for action on climate change, Patrick said, G-20 leaders have proved unable to mobilize around the issue with the same energy they mustered to address the global financial crisis a decade ago.
“Everyone saw the financial crisis as a clear and present immediate danger,” Patrick said. “The problem with climate change is that it is being taken enormously seriously by certain members of the G-20 and not as seriously by others.”
Patrick described climate change as a collective action problem and said concerns about free-riders have deterred some countries from shouldering the costs of mitigating it. Trump, for instance, derided the Paris agreement as a “bad deal” that hurt American workers during his campaign.
But Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute said the onus rests on these wealthy countries to fight climate change since they emit the bulk of the world’s carbon dioxide. Nearly 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from G-20 countries, according to a recent Overseas Development Institute study. And these countries have nearly tripled subsidies to coal-fired power plants in recent years, that study found, despite pledging to scale them back.
“I think we’re actually at a moment in time when G-20 needs to step up action on climate,” Mountford said. “The G-20 are the major emitters, and they are the major economies, and they have a responsibility.”
Some countries remain strongly committed to action on climate change. Indonesia and Mexico — two G-20 members — have pursued ambitious plans to make their economies less dependent on fossil fuels, Mountford said. The British Parliament declared a climate “emergency” in May. And French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both repeatedly denounced Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
At an event in Tokyo on Wednesday, Macron said he has “one red line” on climate change at the G-20.
“If we don’t talk about the Paris agreement and if we don’t get an agreement on it amongst the 20 members in the room, we are no longer capable of defending our climate change goals, and France will not be part of this. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
The text of the final statement, which leaders will issue at the close of the conference, remains subject to change, and Patrick predicted that the summit could produce dueling versions.
Those statements play an important role in setting the global tone on climate change — both for G-20 countries and for developing nations that follow their cues, said Ipek Gencsu, the lead author of the Overseas Development Institute report.
“Passing the buck to other governments or future generations is simply not an option,” she said. “The risk is too high.”