The G20 – on climate change, better than we feared but short of what we need

Efforts in Hamburg to rally 19 countries to the Paris Agreement were successful, but deeper ambition feels further away.

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10 July 2017

Andrew Norton is director of IIED

G20 summit participants (Photo: Office of the Russian president)

G20 leaders gathered in Hamburg but left divided over climate by the US (Photo: Office of the Russian president)

The G20 meeting in Hamburg saw grave risks to the momentum of global climate action, posed by the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, and US efforts to 'peel off' other less committed nations.

The worst was averted as 19 out of 20 global leaders reaffirmed their recognition that there is no turning back from the need to take action on climate change, the opportunities this presents and stressed their determination to stand firm on the aims of the Paris Agreement. But, although the global framework for climate action survived, much more still needs to be done.

Overall, the G20's final outcome document (PDF) demonstrates how isolated the Trump administration has become, particularly where climate action is concerned.

The meeting's German presidency worked hard to ensure that the other 19 major world economies maintained their complete backing for the Paris Agreement, making it clear that the landmark climate deal was 'irreversible'. In terms of the international recognition of the seriousness of the global challenge of climate change it is at least somewhat encouraging that it was the issue of this summit.

The US had wanted the communiqué to include language on behalf of all G20 nations that support would be forthcoming to help other countries "access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently" but this, fortunately, was avoided. Instead, any pressure to turn the clock back and depend on carbon intensive fuels has been acknowledged as a unilateral, backward move on behalf of an isolated state.

This marks an important and significant success in containing the damage that the US position continues to cause.

Before the summit, France took the lead in signalling that real climate action is unstoppable and will continue with its eye-catching announcement on ending the sale of diesel and gasoline vehicles by 2040 and after with the announcement that it would hold a summit to mobilise public and private finance behind the goals of the Paris Agreement in December 2017.

Chancellor Merkel's effective facilitation to achieve the strong consensus of the other 19 nations in the final communiqué that the Paris Agreement on climate change is irreversible was crucial.

In the run-up to the G20, reports indicated the US had been making determined efforts to avoid becoming isolated at the summit in the way they had been in the recent statement by G7 environment ministers – specifically by attempting to persuade countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia not to give strong backing to the Paris process. Under the circumstances, achieving unified language of the so-called 'G19' behind the Paris Agreement was a considerable success.

There have, however, been costs. The intention for the G20 to signal the need to increase ambition in national climate action plans did not make it into the final communiqué. This is unfortunate, as the Paris Agreement, although a breakthrough, was insufficient on many fronts.

Countries' plans for action set out in their 'nationally determined contributions', as currently formulated, only take us about one third of the way on the emissions reductions we need to be on course for a 2 degree world. And the world needs 1.5 to be the clear, achievable target limit for temperature rise to be remotely safe ⎯ particularly for the poorest countries.

The brutal fact is that the world's climate will not stay within safe limits unless Paris provides a framework for increasing – not decreasing – ambition. That is why the actions of the US are so deplorable.

G20 and the signalling of a new era/international order – what does it mean for climate action?

The final communiqué represents a real success under the circumstances. But it is telling that in the end it will be remembered for division ⎯ the G19 against the US on climate ⎯ rather than for unity of purpose.

At Hamburg arguably that was the game. Multiple bilateral meetings were more important to many individual leaders than the collective outcome. We are in a new era when no one bloc of nations can shape global events.

For climate action the future directions are clear. The global inter-governmental process is key and survives in robust shape after the successful isolation of the US at Hamburg. But action at all levels will be needed more than ever – in business, local government and civil society as well as by nation states.

The US government's intention to withdraw or renegotiate the Paris Agreement is a serious setback. But the fact that in the US, companies, cities and state governments remain committed to the agreement because they recognise it makes economic sense, has the potential to keep the US on track. California governor Gerry Brown is rallying action at the state level, showing leadership by announcing a climate action summit to take place in September 2018.

Germany now has the opportunity to work with the next G20 presidency, Argentina, to get concrete actions agreed that will move domestic ambition forward both in terms of reducing emissions, and increasing climate finance for vulnerable countries.

Support, in particular, for the 47 Least Developed Countries in both expanding access to energy for their populations through renewables, and dealing with the damage caused by accelerating climate change, will be crucial for global momentum for climate action.

Andrew Norton ( is director of IIED. This blog was originally published on Climate Home.

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Kumudini Sandesha October 2017

As climate change leads to dramatic changes in the day to day weather patterns, with hurricanes and floods frequently headlining the news around the world, it makes you wonder why people are still turning a blind eye to this ginormous issue. Is it so difficult for people to take an active role in the preservation of our mother earth?

geoff Chambers July 2017

You say:

Each G20 country –in fact every country - undertook their own emission reduction targets in their national plans they submitted in advance of the Paris Climate talks - their INDCs.

In fact, the co-operation of the nine G20 members mentioned by Robin Guenier, and of all the other “developing countries,” is contingent on the others (the “Annex One Parties to the Convention”) - providing them with a trillion dollars of dosh every decade. Without the contribution of the USA (and probably of Japan and Russia) the whole bill will fall upon Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, for some obscure reason, Turkey and Belorussia.

Beneficiaries of our largesse will include South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Does any rational person think that this is likely to happen?

Furthermore, no national commitment
has been made by the UK, France, Germany, or Italy. Although
all the members of the EU have signed the treaty, the commitment to
reduce emissions has been made by the EU as a whole. So if the UK, for example, undershoots the EU's emissions target (as it has promised to do) the slack can be made up by Germany burning even more polluting brown coal (as long as the UK remains in the EU.)

Robin_GuenierJuly 2017

I believe the text agreed in Paris in 2005 means your observation that “19 major world economies maintained their complete backing for the Paris Agreement making it clear that the landmark climate deal was ‘irreversible’” is not as encouraging as it might seem. And your subsequent comment that “the global inter-governmental process … survives in robust shape … after Hamburg” is I fear inaccurate: the process was not in robust shape before Hamburg and the US withdrawal.

Article 4.4 of the Paris Agreement exempts developing countries, responsible for over 65% of global emissions, from any obligation – legal or moral – to reduce those emissions ( and Nine of the countries meeting in Hamburg last week (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and South Korea) are in that category - a category that means they are obliged neither to cut their emissions nor to provide funding and technical help to poorer countries. It’s hardly surprising therefore that they were content to sign the Hamburg Declaration. It’s also been clear for some time that, although they are developed countries and are (cynically) willing to endorse the Agreement, Japan and Russia (responsible for about 8% of global emissions) have little, if any, practical interest in reducing their emissions (

Therefore, now the US has changed its position, it would seem that, of G20 members, only Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the UK regard climate change as a serious problem. Yet they are responsible for only 8% of global emissions ( That would not seem to represent a process in robust shape.

Clare ShakyaJuly 2017

Thank you for your thoughtful comment on Andrew Norton's blog. Andrew is travelling at the moment, but I wanted to respond.

Each G20 country – in fact every country - undertook their own emission reduction targets in their national plans they submitted in advance of the Paris Climate talks - their INDCs. So although the Paris Agreement recognises that it is the countries who industrialised first who bear moral responsibility, Paris was a universal agreement and every country set out what they would do, even the poorest countries.

And yes, we are still a long way off having sufficient commitments to stay well below 2 degrees. As Andy notes in his blog, we need to accelerate action now, not decelerate.

But it could have been a lot worse – if other countries had decided to follow the US federal government in leaving Paris, or just not making a joint statement on their current commitment, we would have been less likely to get that increase in commitments that we need.

Clare Shakya, Director, IIED's Climate Change research group.

Robin Guenier July 2017

Thanks for your interesting reply Clare.

It’s true that almost every country submitted an INDC. But, apart from developed countries, few committed to absolute emission reduction. This extract from China’s INDC sets the scene:

“Developed countries shall … undertake ambitious economy-wide absolute quantified emissions reduction targets by 2030. Developing countries shall, … supported and enabled by the provision of finance, technology and capacity building by developed countries, undertake diversifying enhanced mitigation actions.”

And that’s a position largely reflected in developing countries’ INDCs – focusing, when they refer to reduction, on reductions re “business as usual” and/or on improvements in carbon intensity. Moreover, they’re commonly conditional on the receipt of finance, technical support etc. Thus, except arguably for Brazil’s and Mexico’s, none of the G20 developing countries targeted absolute emission reduction. And Brazil’s and Mexico’s actions since 2015 suggest they may not be taking their commitments very seriously.

You refer to the need “to get that increase in commitments we need”. But I find it hard to see how genuine reduction commitments will ever be possible so long as developing countries, and especially the newly industrialised countries, are permitted, by Article 4.7 of the UNFCCC, to prioritise “economic and social development and poverty eradication” and are exempted from commitment to emission reduction by the Paris Agreement’s Article 4.4 – something China and India, supported by other major developing countries, insisted upon in pre-Paris negotiations.

Consider South Korea – a heavily industrialised, advanced and growing economy. It’s increased its GHG emissions – now 1.7% of global emissions – by 129% since 1990 and has per capita emissions of 12.27 tons of CO2. In contrast, the UK’s has reduced its emissions – now 1.1% of global emissions – by 31% since 1990 and has per capita emissions of only 6.17 tons. Surely it’s absurd that, unlike the UK, South Korea is classified as developing and therefore is able to submit a wholly inadequate INDC?

I’m no Trump fan – but perhaps his proposal that the Paris Agreement be renegotiated is not so foolish?

I look forward to hearing from Andrew on his return.