World leaders meeting at the G20 summit in Rome have agreed that countries must take meaningful action to keep the world from warming by no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but are facing criticism for offering few concrete commitments in order to reach the target.
Sunday’s final communique did not include a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The G20 leaders instead agreed to wording that underlines the importance of reaching net zero by or around the middle of the century, phrasing that meets the positions of China and Saudi Arabia.
Greenpeace condemned the final statement as “weak, lacking ambition and vision”, and said G20 leaders had “failed to meet the moment” before the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow. “If the G20 was a dress rehearsal for Cop26 then world leaders fluffed their lines,” said its executive director Jennifer Morgan.
However, Tom Burke of the E3G thinktank praised the changes in the language agreed. “This is a shift from what they have previously said. The crucial words are on this decade – previously they had only talked about 2050 which is too far away,” he said.
“This is an expression of a growing sense of urgency in the G20, driven by both events and science. This is a political signal that will add momentum to the Cop and help in reaching agreement at Cop. We were not expecting this language.”
The communique does set out plans to end overseas investment in coal this year – something China has agreed to do – and to take unspecific actions to limit domestic coal use. Objections from Turkey to the passage on coal were lifted early on Sunday morning, leading to a rare outbreak of cheers from exhausted drafting officials at their first large, in-person gathering since the Covid outbreak.
The whole of the G20 summit was seen as a test of multilateralism’s durability after a period in which the world responded to the pandemic by looking inwards.
The communique said: “We will increase our efforts to implement the commitment made in 2009 in Pittsburgh to phase out and rationalise over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
A reference in an earlier draft to reducing carbon emissions significantly, opposed by Turkey, was removed in favour of a phrase saying a reduction in fossil fuel use is “one of the most feasible, efficient and quickest ways to limit climate change”.
The Italian hosts were delighted by the outcome, saying they had done “the heavy lifting for Boris Johnson” and the British hosts in Glasgow.
The climate progress was matched by other agreements over the weekend on global taxation, ending US-EU trade wars and a commitment to vaccinate 40% of the world’s population against Covid by the end of the year and 70% by the middle of next year.
The communique calls for countries “to update and advance where necessary” nationally determined contributions on carbon emissions this decade, and stresses the importance of fulfilling the commitment to provide $100bn (£75bn) in climate finance to help poor countries adapt to climate change. The UK has acknowledged that Cop26 is not going to meet the hoped for $100bn pledge this year.
The language goes just beyond what was agreed six years ago in Paris, when the climate deal called for capping global warming at well below 2C, and ideally closer to 1.5C. Experts say it means halving carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. China, one of the world’s largest emitters, has said it will meet net zero by 2060.
On the future of coal, the most contentious issue on framing the agreement, the communique reads: “We will put an end to the provision of international public finance for new unabated coal power generation abroad by the end of 2021.” In terms of domestic coal use, the statement contains only a vague pledge to support those countries that commit to “phasing out investment in new unabated coal power-generation capacity to do so as soon as possible”.
The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, who chaired the G20 summit, told the meeting: “The decisions we make today will have a direct impact on the success of the Glasgow summit and ultimately on our ability to tackle the climate crisis.”
He added: “We need to set long-term goals which are consistent with the objectives of the Paris agreement and make short-term changes to achieve them.”
Draghi said Cop26 “must signal the start of a permanent campaign. Every year we should ask ourselves if we have done enough to change course.”
He said “around this room we have different views over how soon we must start to act and how fast we must change course. Emerging economies resent how rich countries have polluted in the past and demand financial help to support them in this transition. They also wonder whether any commitments we take are indeed credible given our past failings.”
The agreements were reached despite the absence of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. In another sign of tension, in a video address Putin challenged the way carbon emissions are counted. “We believe that G20 members should lead the world in creating universal, fair and, importantly, transparent rules for climate regulation when implementing climate and environmental initiatives,” he said. “Such rules need to be based on mutually accepted models for counting and monitoring the emission and capture of greenhouse gases.”
The Italians were pleased with an agreement on global taxation reached on Saturday that will now have to be cleared by the US Congress.
Putin and Xi each cited Covid as a reason not to attend, and instead sent video messages, and officials to negotiate on the text. The Chinese called for greater mutual recognition of other countries’ vaccines while Putin said Covid was here to stay, requiring a long-term strategy.
Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, promised India would produce 5bn vaccines for India and the world by the end of next year. There was no reference to any plan to lift vaccine patents, seen by some campaigners as the best way to ensure poor countries gain equitable access to vaccines.