What to look out for at the G20 summit

Leaders are piling into Cannes. Here are the top topics on the agenda at this year's conference.

Promotional posters lining the streets around this year's G20 summit on the French Riviera carry the message: "L'Histoire s'écrit à Cannes" ["The history is written in Cannes"]. This is a lot for the host, Nicolas Sarkozy, to live up to. Even before France took presidency of the G20 at the start of this year, Sarkozy had publicly been relishing his time in the international spotlight. His ambitious agenda for "reforming the international monetary system" and "strengthening the social dimension of globalisation" would portray him as a global statesman, boosting his image at home and paving the way for his re-election bid in France next year.

Yet all is not going smoothly. Presidents, chancellors and prime ministers are piling in to Cannes ahead of the short official summit -- which is just 24 hours long -- for emergency talks on saving the system, not reforming it.

His global vision has been overshadowed by problems closer to home. The slow-coming European rescue deal, which did little for anyone's political legacy, has been thrown into fresh uncertainty as Greece announced its intention to hold a referendum on the terms of its aid package.

Sarkozy was clearly rattled, speaking publicly of his shock and the need to stick to the plan, something he will re-iterate during emergency talks between himself, Angela Merkel and George Papandreou this evening. This story has dominated the headlines, along with the chances of China's Hu Jintao throwing the euro a lifeline in Cannes.

Sarkozy is not headline news. During the first day of official G20 business tomorrow, he will be hoping to make his mark and bring the spotlight back on him.

He has long advocated a financial transaction tax as a means of raising money for development and climate change. At his behest, Bill Gates will report on the issue to G20 leaders. He is expected to give his backing to the tax, which could raise $50bn a year.

France has been working to secure a "coalition of the willing" -- a group of supportive countries such as France, Germany, South Africa and others -- that circumvents opposing countries such as the UK and US. The tax has long been popular in France, and it would be a lasting legacy of France's G20 presidency. Sarkozy has been banking on this, and not crisis management closer to home, to be the history that is written in Cannes.

Simon Chouffot is a freelance journalist and media specialist

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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