The G20’s role in focusing international climate efforts

One Young World Ambassador Parker Liautaud is a polar explorer and a Fellow at the Yale Climate & Energy Institute. Through his expeditions, he has partnered with leading academic institutions to conduct research on the climate system. He has been named on Time Magazine's 30 Under 30 list of people changing the world and, in March 2014, he was honoured by The White House for engaging the next generation of conservation leaders.

This piece was originally published in G20 Turkey: The Antalya Summit 2015 the leading source of analysis, opinion and comment on the global agenda.


The G20 summit in Antalya marks the final major gathering of world leaders before the start of the annual session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris – COP21. It is the most highly anticipated climate change summit in years and the last chance for the UNFCCC to limit global warming to safe levels. No one should underestimate the potential for the G20 to deliver a substantive climate agreement.

Most of the UNFCCC’s members have already submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) ahead of COP21. Despite monumental efforts from the UNFCCC, individual states and the private sector, the cumulative emissions cuts do not come close to what is needed to limit global warming to 2°C – the ceiling agreed at the Copenhagen conference in 2009. Current INDCs would reduce world greenhouse gas emissions from 68 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (GTCO2e) in 2030 to 56.2–59.1 GTCO2e. Emission reductions need to more than double from the current commitments in order to meet the Copenhagen target.

Focusing on international climate efforts

This level of cuts may seem daunting. One weakness is that the UNFCCC must unavoidably balance the diverging interests of nearly 200 countries. An informal group, the G20 can help focus the international negotiating process. It can be a powerful force for collaboration against a global threat that a handful of its members effectively created. G20 members account for just under 80% of global carbon emissions (34,590.5 MtCO2e), as well as most of the potential reductions in emissions between now and 2030. The group also brings the wealthiest countries together with major developing economies such as Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia. The countries whose emissions really matter in the fight against climate change are all represented at the G20.

The timing of the Antalya summit provides an unparalleled opportunity to ensure that its important members prepare themselves to sign an agreement when their representatives land in Paris. While the UNFCCC focuses entirely on a positive outcome at the end of this year, the G20’s priorities extend far beyond this. No one can predict how two weeks of climate negotiations will shape the eventual outcome, but if the submitted INDCs accurately predict that outcome, the question that remains for the international community is how to bridge the gap between existing commitments and the measures needed to limit warming to 2°C. It is not a question for after the ink dries on the deal made at COP21. This question must be answered now, and the G20’s role is critical.

The decarbonisation of the global economy

Earlier this year, at Schloss Elmau in June, G7 members committed to decarbonise by the end of this century – a landmark pledge that signals a serious commitment to tackling climate change. Mobilising capital into the low-carbon economy at a sufficiently fast pace will require targeted government policies that correct the forces of short-term corporate decision-making and encourage the private sector to act. Carbon pricing has gained theoretical momentum in recent years, and programmes have either already been implemented or are being considered in several G20 members including China, the European Union, Canada, South Africa, Mexico, Japan and the United States. The challenge for pricing programmes is not only to cover a significant proportion of global emissions, but also to implement a price that is steep enough to make a difference. It remains unclear how pricing policies will evolve in the coming years – but at the very least, what used to be a politically toxic proposal is now increasingly considered a crucial mechanism for accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Carbon markets around the world may remain fragmented for many years, but if the G20 commits to strengthening national carbon markets and pricing laws, it could bolster the climate process at precisely the most important time – just before COP21. Such a commitment would send a signal to the private sector that it can expect clear direction in the evolving economics of carbon, and clarify an international commitment to the large-scale private sector. Most importantly, it would send a necessary message to the rest of the world that whatever the outcome of COP21, major countries fully intend to tackle climate change.

Climate justice on the agenda

As a group of cooperating governments, G20 members can also hold each other accountable for the commitments they have already made. At the 2009 Summit in Pittsburgh, the leaders committed to “phase out and rationalize over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” – subsidies that the International Monetary Fund notes are “a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households”. This was reinforced in the G7 communiqué after the Schloss Elmau Summit. Unfortunately, G20 governments still spend $88 billion per year subsidising fossil fuel exploration. One step they can take to support a successful outcome at COP21 and get closer to decarbonisation by the end of the century is to present concrete plans to get rid of ineffective energy subsidies. This would fall squarely into Turkey’s focus on climate finance – eliminating these subsidies would liberate capital to be invested into climate control efforts.

A full discussion of climate finance at Antalya should also address the state of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The United States has still not delivered its pledge of $3 billion. Japan (which pledged $1.5 billion), Australia ($186.9 million) and Canada ($277 million) have not delivered any portion of their pledges either, while Korea has only signed $14.2 million of the $100 million it pledged. Only France and Germany have signed the full amount of their pledges. This money was intended to support developing countries mitigate the effects of climate change. The leaders will have to face their colleagues in the G20 whose countries would be recipients of this money. Following through on pledged funds would reinvigorate climate efforts, as well as boost faith in the UNFCCC, which requires committed international backing to be successful. This may seem idealistic, but it is an important priority that the G20 should focus on.

The G20 summit comes at a critical juncture in the global fight to control climate change. Its members could play a pivotal role in the acceleration of climate policy and finance. If the G20 members can commit to holding each other to a high standard and to stand for climate justice, they could exceed expectations at COP21 and beyond.