And then there were 19: G20 faces uphill battle on climate as Trump thwarts global commitments

This year’s G20 summit is the first major multinational meeting following the United States’ announced withdrawal from the Paris agreement.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Sohn
CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

If you want to see where international climate action is headed now that the United States is lead by a climate denier, take a look at this week’s G20 Summit, where climate issues are likely to take center stage despite the Trump administration’s antipathy towards climate action.

Last year, the United States marked the G20 Summit by officially joining the Paris climate agreement along with China. This year, nations like Germany, as well as subnational actors like cities and states, are looking to use the summit as a chance to push the world further towards implementing the historic climate agreement, with or without the United States.

“Since the decision of the U.S. to quit the Paris climate agreement, we are more determined than ever to make it successful,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in advance of the summit last week. “We must tackle this existential challenge, and we cannot wait until every last person on earth has been convinced of the scientific proof.”

Germany, which is hosting the summit in Hamburg on Friday and Saturday, is expected to propose an action plan on climate and energy, which climate experts hope will be embraced by 19 of the 20 participating nations. The plan would include concrete steps towards implementing the Paris agreement, like calling for countries both to revise and strengthen their individual Paris commitments by 2020 and to develop and submit a mid-century long-term low emissions development strategy.

Lutz Weischer, team leader of international climate policy for Germanwatch, a Germany-based climate nonprofit, told reporters on a press call Wednesday that he was hopeful that all 19 countries — the G20 minus the United States — would endorse the action plan.

Still, Weischer noted that the absence of strong climate leadership by the United States could make a references to climate action within the official summit communique — the joint statement issued at the end of the summit by all 20 national leaders — difficult.

“Climate is probably the trickiest issue,” Weischer said. “We don’t have a very good idea of what the final communique will look like.”

Under the Trump administration, the United States has already shown a willingness in global summits to embrace a contrarian position on climate action. Earlier this year, all mention of climate finance was dropped from a G20 communique at the request of the United States. The United States also refused to join a climate communique released by the G7 in June and has expressed its intention to withdraw from all international climate finance mechanisms, such as the UN’s Green Climate Fund.

In June, Trump officially announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, which was was agreed on in December of 2015 by nearly 200 countries and aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2° C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. In withdrawing, the United States joins Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries not participating in the agreement — Nicaragua refused to join because the agreement did not go far enough with regards to climate change, and Syria did not join because it is in the midst of a civil war.

At the G20 summit, there is some concern that the United States’ reversal on international climate policy could send a signal to other countries that have expressed hesitancy at fully implementing — or strengthening — the agreement. According to Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, other G20 nations that could prove difficult with regards to climate change are Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey, all of which have expressed hesitancy at certain specific steps for implementation of the Paris agreement, including deepening of national commitments.

“It’s pretty clear that the other 19 countries are committed in moving ahead with Paris, but that’s not to say that there aren’t parts…that are problematic for other countries,” Meyer said during the same press call on Wednesday. “The direction of travel on Paris is pretty clear, but when it comes to the detailed elements…those remain to be hashed out.”

National actors will not be the only parties working for climate action at the G20 — subnational actors, including U.S. states and cities, are likely to try to push nations to commit to detailed implementation plans for the Paris agreement. Already, 52 global mayors, representing more than 275 million people, have released a joint statement calling on G20 leaders to renew their commitment to the Paris agreement. A video statement by Paris Mayor Ann Hidalgo calling for nations to deliver on their goals submitted to the Paris agreement will also play during the G20 Summit.

“We, mayors of the world’s largest cities, urge G20 leaders to act now for the planet and deliver on the goals of the Paris agreement,” Hidalgo says in the video. “We represent hundreds of millions of citizens, and we reaffirm the commitment of cities to tackle climate change.”

Still, an 19-party action plan or even tepid consensus in a communique does not necessarily translate into action. For nearly a decade, leaders at the G20 summit have committed to phasing out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, first agreeing to do so back in 2009. But a new report, from Oil Change International, Friends of the Earth-U.S., Sierra Club, and the World Wildlife Fund European Policy Office, found that between 2013 and 2015, G20 countries provided $71.8 billion annually to support fossil fuel production, while providing just $18.7 billion annually for clean energy technology.

“If other G20 governments are serious about standing up to Trump’s climate denial and meeting their commitments under the Paris agreement, they need to stop propping up the outdated fossil fuel industry with public money,” Alex Doukas, senior campaigner at Oil Change International and one of the report’s authors, said in a press statement. “The best climate science points to an urgent need to transition to clean energy, but public finance from G20 governments drags us in the opposite direction. We must stop funding fossils and shift these subsidies.”

There is some hope that phasing out fossil fuel subsidies could see renewed focus at this year’s G20 summit. Argentina — which will inherit the G20 presidency from Germany this year — has already voluntarily submitted a study looking at its national fossil fuel subsidy programs, something that climate experts hope will translate into making the issue a priority in its presidency. Still, as the Oil Change International report notes, Argentina is the ninth largest financial backer of fossil fuel projects in the G20, spending $1.4 billion between 2013 and 2015.

And while experts like UCS’s Meyer hope that the G20 summit will help shift focus from supporting the Paris agreement to taking concrete steps to implement it, he notes that the true success of the summit will depend on independent national climate action that comes out of the meeting.

“This is an important meeting to show that the world is moving ahead with climate action in spite of the Trump administration, but it’s by no means the be all to end all,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done even if we have the best possible outcome in Hamburg.”