As world leaders head to Cornwall this week for the first G7 meeting in two years, Prime Minister Boris Johnson aims to use the summit to “unite leading democracies to… create a greener, more prosperous future”.
Johnson’s words are hardly unexpected. Talk of “building back better” has been ubiquitous since the Covid crisis began. The world is also preparing for COP26, arguably the most important set of climate talks since the Paris Agreement, taking place in Glasgow in November. Reports on 9 June of a UK call for a new “Marshall Plan” – named after the US economic programme that helped rebuild European economies after the Second World War – suggest at least some political willpower to step up the climate fight.
Data compiled by the New Statesman also indicates there is grounds for optimism. All seven nations have committed to some degree to net zero by 2050. They have also all submitted updated “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) – interim climate pledges that are required every five years under the terms of the Paris Agreement – which have boosted their 2030 emissions reduction pledges.
“The fact that all G7 nations have net zero 2050 pledges, and have updated their NDCs, is pretty remarkable,” said Lucile Dufour, senior policy adviser at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think tank. “A year ago we were certainly not in this position.”
As well as the G7 and EU, the leaders of four other countries – Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa – are invited to attend the meeting (Narendra Modi will not attend in person due to the Covid situation in India), in a development that many see as an opportunity to further address the climate challenge. The core seven nations “can show how they are willing to support emerging economies like India and South Africa transition to clean energy”, said Alex Scott, the geopolitics lead at the climate think tank E3G.
The climate pledges of the four guest nations appear worse on paper than those of the G7. Australia and India have failed to even begin discussions around putting a net zero target in law, and the emissions of all four have risen significantly since 1990.
But, in the case of India and South Africa at least, such an understanding fails to account for a “fair share” of emissions. They have a much smaller historic responsibility for climate change, lower purchasing power, and other economic priorities, such as pulling their populations out of poverty. Emissions produced per capita is only two tonnes of CO2 per person in India, compared to around 16 tonnes in Australia, the US and Canada.
The climate ratings organisation Climate Action Tracker assesses India’s current policy trajectory, when fair shares of emissions are considered, to be compatible with the world warming 2°C – a milestone that none of the ten other countries invited to the summit meet.
In contrast, the US’s fair share target would require it to reduce its emissions by 195 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, according to 175 climate organisations that represent the US Climate Fair Share Project. This means that the US – which is responsible for around a quarter of total historic emissions – would have to decarbonise its own economy by 70 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, then also invest significantly in emissions cuts in other countries.
Whatever countries’ individual responsibility, however, overall global pledges remain far off what is needed to limit emissions to 1.5°C. In 2019 the UN said that the world needs to reduce emissions by 7 per cent each year this decade. During the Covid pandemic, emissions did indeed fall nearly 7 per cent in 2020 – but now the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts they will shoot back up 5 per cent in 2021.
It will take a huge international effort to turn around this trajectory. And there are notable areas on which the G7 – which represents 46 per cent of global GDP and around 25 per cent of global emissions – can improve.
On a domestic front, G7 post-Covid economic stimulus packages still are skewed towards supporting fossil fuel-intensive industries. A recent report suggests G7 governments collectively committed $189bn to support fossil fuel-intensive industries between January 2020 and March 2021, vs $147bn directed towards clean energy in the same period. These numbers don’t yet account for the $6trn of stimulus packages Biden is attempting to get through Congress, or the €670bn EU Recovery and Resilience facility, but commitments so far do not bode well.
Some G7 nations are also still investing heavily in new fossil fuel extraction – something that the IEA specifically said should be ended by 2021. Oil field data from GlobalData shows Canada, the US and UK all have operating or planned oil fields that are set to produce billions of barrels of oil into the 2070s, 2080s and 2090s. President Joe Biden has issued a moratorium on issuing new permits to drill federal lands, but UK and Canadian policy is to continue extracting as much as possible from both undeveloped and developed fields.
Meanwhile, between 2017 and 2019, G7 members provided $86bn in international public finance for fossil fuels, versus just $21bn in support for clean energy, according to data from the NGO Oil Change International (OCI). In 2019 the US Export-Import Bank made the largest G7 payment of the period, shows OCI data, a $4.7bn loan to support a natural gas terminal in Mozambique.
In May G7 environment ministers announced they would end international public financing of coal by the end of 2021 – but in reality, other than Japan, governments had largely already stopped investing in coal. Currently only the UK has officially adopted a pledge to stop financing oil and gas as well.
One of the pillars of the Paris Agreement was a commitment from wealthy nations to provide $100bn in climate finance to developing countries every year from 2020. This is a commitment that has not yet been realised, and is put further at risk by moves such as the UK’s decision to cut international aid.
“The UK is on very shaky ground” and needs to reinstate its 0.7 per cent GDP target for international aid, said Scott. “The G7 should form a comprehensive package of leveraging public and private finance to help meet that $100bn target and help the countries recover their economies in a way that accelerates the transition to clean energy.”
Overall, G7 nations have largely made good progress with domestic emissions reductions and climate pledges. But all eyes will now be on the Carbis Bay Hotel in St Ives to see whether leaders will now back up their words with more decisive and rounded international action.