The 2015 Paris Climate Accords came at a time of relative geopolitical harmony, including in relations between China and the US. It is sometimes forgotten that one of the key developments that preceded the landmark agreement was months of intensive diplomacy between Beijing and Washington, culminating in a bilateral climate pact in November 2014.
The shared global leadership that was on display then is, sadly, largely lacking on the world stage right now but must be revived, at least in relation to this most fundamental of issues. As we move into what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described as the age of “global boiling,” the history books will not look favorably on failure to agree greater cooperation on the issue.
This is especially the case given the fact that so many parts of the world are already suffering the effects of climate change. In recent weeks, for example, parts of China, including Beijing, have been battered by the heaviest rain in 140 years. The country has also recorded its hottest-ever temperature, 52 degrees Celsius (125.6 degrees Fahrenheit), amid the wider heat waves that have also affected Europe and North America.
One model that has been proposed to concentrate minds on the issue is a form of “war-time leadership.” This would involve a determined focus on the core objective of tackling climate change, while forging a greater sense of national and global unity on the issue, and with the involvement of the private sector a key element for achieving a positive outcome.
One example here of what the success of such an approach might look like is the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic drove the discovery and development of vaccines, rapidly and at scale.
One of the key challenges to forging such a sense of unity is the darker geopolitical landscape now compared with 2015, and not only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, tensions are also running significantly higher between China and the West, which greatly complicates the pathway to a step change in climate change leadership.
The spike in geopolitical tensions was in full view at the recent G20 meeting of environment ministers, when there had been high hopes for greater accord despite wider geopolitical disagreements.
Collectively, G20 nations account for about 80 percent of carbon emissions. Yet while there is no better forum, in theory, to try to push forward the climate agenda, its results have been pitiful so far this year. As the world endures the hottest temperatures on record, G20 member nations have made virtually no progress on climate policy fundamentals.
Yes, after their meeting at the end of July the G20 environment ministers did issue a long outcome document committing to environmentally sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and to actions such as reversing land degradation, accelerating ecosystem restoration, halting biodiversity loss, and promoting a resilient blue economy.
However, there was no breakthrough on hugely scaling up the use of renewable energy, or on reaching an agreement to phase out fossil fuels, especially coal.
This provoked exasperation among some ministers and officials, including EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, who said “we simply are nowhere” and “the glass is … certainly empty when we look at G20 commitments to address climate change.” Noting that some delegations had even tried to row back on previous climate pledges, he added that “we cannot be driven by the lowest common denominator or by narrow national interests. We cannot allow the pace of change to be set by the slowest movers in the room.”
It is not only officials who are critical of attitudes and progress but also scientific experts such as Peter Newman, a member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He said humanity is entering a critical period in which “we’re facing death and seeing that climate change is not an idea just of science; it is real and it hurts.” Populations face the growing prospect of “baking in an oven,” he added.
The lack of progress on the issue is also frustrating Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His country holds the presidency of the G20 this year and he still has high hopes for this year’s summit, even though it takes place against the backdrop of the most unpredictable global landscape in years, if not decades. In total, India will host more than 200 meetings in about 50 cities, involving ministers, top officials and representatives of civil society.
The pinnacle of all this will be the leadership summit in New Delhi in September. It will be attended by about 30 heads of state and governments from G20 member states and other invited countries, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, Spain and the UAE, plus representatives of international organizations such as the UN, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
India decided that two of the four focus themes for the G20 this year would be green development and sustainable development (the other two are empowerment of women and technological transformation).
Modi must therefore start banging heads together in the coming weeks in an attempt to get some movement on climate issues. He is well aware that while the G20 was once widely viewed as having seized the mantle from the G7 as the premier forum for international cooperation and global governance, in the past decade and a half it has failed to realize the full scale of the ambition some thrust upon it. This is in part because it has no formal mechanisms for ensuring implementation and enforcement of agreements between the leaders of member states.
Modi must therefore try to make his personal mark as host of the G20, not least because it could affect his prospects for reelection as prime minister next year. As a savvy politician, he is well aware of the prestige the G20 enjoys.
Moreover, he is keen to buttress his government’s credentials as a global green leader. To that end, he has highlighted the fact that India is one of the top five countries in terms of installed renewable energy capacity, and met its targets for installed capacity of electricity generated from non-fossil-fuel sources nine years ahead of its target date of 2030. With Modi under pressure in the run-up to the main G20 summit, he will try above all else to exceed expectations in terms of outcomes. Whether he achieves this, however, will depend to a significant extent on whether geopolitical divisions within the grouping improve or escalate in the weeks ahead.