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1 November 2021

High hopes meet harsh realities at the G20 in Rome

Key leaders stayed away and firm commitments on climate change were thin on the ground at this weekend's summit, ahead of Cop26.

By Emily Tamkin

World leaders convened in Rome over the weekend for the G20. Results were, to put it politely, middling.

The first and most pressing disappointment was on climate change. The G20 preceded the much-hyped UN climate conference, Cop26, in Glasgow. This year’s is the most significant climate conference since 2015, when governments agreed to try to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. 

But already there is disappointment. Leaders agreed to work towards limiting global heating but made few concrete commitments. UN Secretary General António Guterres tweeted, “While I welcome the #G20’s recommitment to global solutions, I leave Rome with my hopes unfulfilled — but at least they are not buried. Onwards to #COP26 in Glasgow to keep the goal of 1.5 degrees alive and to implement promises on finance and adaptation for people & planet.”

Hours later, he tweeted again, this time offering, “All countries need to realise that the old, carbon-burning model of development is a death sentence for their economies and our planet. We need decarbonisation now, across every sector in every country.”

Meanwhile, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who did not attend the conference but appeared by way of video call, said that “developed countries” must lead the way in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. This may have been something of a swipe at the United States, which, in fairness, is the number one historic global emitter (China is currently the number one annual emitter). 

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US President Joe Biden showed up to the G20, but his “Build Back Better” bill, which would spend $555 billion on clean energy investments, is still stalled in Congress. 

There were other hiccups too. With neither Xi nor Russian President Vladimir Putin attending in person, a potential moment for engagement with Biden was lost, at a time of seemingly ever-increasing tensions. And even the silver linings of the conference were tarnished in places. World leaders did manage to agree to tax large multinational businesses at least 15 per cent – an initiative of the US Treasury under the Biden administration.

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However, the reality remains that the US president has so far not managed to raise the corporate tax rate back home from 21 to 28 per cent. (His predecessor Donald Trump previously lowered it to 21 from 25 per cent.) Twenty-one is, it’s true, higher than 15. But that Biden can champion raising tax rates around the world while struggling to do so in America is a neat illustration of the ways in which lofty promises abroad can run into harsh reality on the domestic front – particularly since the communiqué signed by the various leaders isn’t legally binding.

That isn’t to say nothing was accomplished in Rome. G20 leaders didn’t set a target year for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but they did agree to stop financing new coal plants overseas. And the United States and European Union announced a rollback of Trump-era steel and aluminum tariffs: Biden hailed it as “ushering in a new era of trans-Atlantic cooperation that’s going to benefit all of our people, both now and, I believe, in the years to come.” And it’s certainly possible that a slow start in Rome will be followed by a more ambitious two weeks in Glasgow. 

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense of a yawning gulf between the ambitious statements and what world leaders need to do to address the climate crisis and restore public confidence in fora like the G20. On Sunday, many of the G20 leaders joined in the old Rome tradition of tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain. They clapped afterwards, as though they were celebrating having done something. But had they?

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