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31 October 2021

The G20’s failure to end the world’s coal addiction bodes ill for Cop26

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen as the key obstacle to any agreement on phasing out coal.

By Philippa Nuttall

After a weekend of talks in Rome between the richest nations, host Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi tried to convince the world that progress had been made on climate action ahead of Co26, which opened in Glasgow today. But vague statements and a failure to agree to phase out coal left many unimpressed.

Leaders meeting in person at the G20, with China’s Xi Jinping dialling in, agreed that limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was now a common goal. “We recognise that the impacts of climate change at 1.5°C are much lower than at 2°C,” said the final statement published on Sunday evening. 

The heads of government also agreed on the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by around 2050. Until today, China and Russia’s plans were to do so by 2060. Both countries were now moving on climate action and had accepted scientific evidence for the 1.5°C limit, said Draghi. “Until today we did not share the same ambitions, from today we share the same ambitions and targets,” he told journalists at the end of the summit. 

But how net-zero ambitions will be achieved remains unclear. Ending coal is seen by scientists and climate campaigners as vital if greenhouse gas emissions are to be dramatically reduced, yet leaders made little progress on abandoning the world’s dirtiest fuel. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was singled out as the key obstacle to phasing out coal. Leaders did manage to agree halting public finance for new unabated coal power generation abroad by the end of 2021. But that was as far as it went.

Draghi said he was “profoundly optimistic” that the requisite progress on climate change could be made if countries keep working together. “If we keep this capacity, we move forward, if we start fighting and arguing we go nowhere,” he said. “The language today is full of hope.”

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Others were less enthusiastic. “If the G20 was a dress rehearsal for Cop26, then world leaders fluffed their lines,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “Their communique was weak, lacking ambition and vision… Now they move to Glasgow where there is still a chance to seize a historic opportunity, but the likes of Australia and Saudi Arabia need to be marginalised.”  

Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, also criticised Australia. “The exclusive club of the G20 is clearly not fit for purpose,” he said. “Countries like Australia blocked agreement to phase out coal only weeks after failing to deliver the promised $100bn in climate finance to poor and vulnerable countries. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a stain on global efforts to achieve a clean, sustainable future.” 

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Leaders pledged to “recall and reaffirm” the commitment by developed countries to jointly mobilise $100bn a year by 2020 until 2025. But little progress was made on fossil fuel subsidies, with only vague promises to “phase out and rationalise, over the medium term, inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption”.

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