Why the G20 Is Not About Climate Change — And Shouldn’t Be

It seems as if every gathering of more than two political leaders these days is being trumpeted as an opportunity to advance the fight against global warming, and when those said leaders go home without having secured any sort of promise or commitment on that front, the meeting is seen as a failure.

The most the G20 gathering could manage this time around on the climate front was a solemn nodding of the heads when Obama suggested that it would be a great idea if they phased out subsidies for fossil fuels. Governments spend about $300 billion a year on subsidies, and leaders said they’d like to “phase out and rationalize over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” in a statement released after the summit was over. Not exactly a firm commitment.

Additional initiatives, such as providing aid to developing countries for renewable energy and energy efficiency separate from other aid, were kicked down the road until the next meeting of finance ministers.

There’s a Time and Place For That

Environmentalists were generally disappointed by the G20, but they may be placing too much emphasis on the wrong meeting.

The G20 group of industrialized and developing countries is not a climate regulatory body, and never was. The official definition of the group, from its rather dull website, is “The Group of Twenty (G-20) Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors.” Its mandate, also from the website, is as follows:

The G-20 is an informal forum that promotes open and constructive discussion between industrial and emerging-market countries on key issues related to global economic stability. By contributing to the strengthening of the international financial architecture and providing opportunities for dialogue on national policies, international co-operation, and international financial institutions, the G-20 helps to support growth and development across the globe.

Nowhere in the above is the environment mentioned.

Of course many climateers would argue that the environment is central to economic policies, and that climate change has a direct impact on “global economic stability.” There is no doubt that in the long term, or even sooner, it will.

But the planet is also in the midst of a frightening recession, one we have not quite hurdled. The Group of Twenty’s primary purpose is economic issues; spreading its mandate into the contentious issue of climate change risks watering it down (more than it already is).

Or as Shyam Saran, Special Envoy of the Indian Prime Minister, said, the G20 is not the forum for substantive discussions of climate change. “The sole negotiating forum for climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).” That forum will be in Copenhagen in December, and everyone, environmentalists and governments alike, should be saving their energy for then.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

3 responses

  1. Increasingly, serious business leaders from major companies are realizing the economic importance of climate protection and acting accordingly. For example, in the past week, three major energy companies, PG&E, Exelon, and PNM have quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the chamber’s ongoing denial of climate change and their attacks on climate protection legislation.

    For more, see: http://brodwin.com/PG_E_Break_Signals_Climate_.html

  2. If we don’t cut emissions soon, the current economic crisis will seem like a little blip on the radar in 20 years time. So the G20 is the PERFECT time to discuss climate issues.

    I agree with Lord Nicholas Stern. We start fighting climate change now, and it will eat up 2 percent of GDP — steep, but manageable. If we wait a generation, it will consume 20 percent of GDP, and our economy — not to mention our planet — will be devastated.

    Seems to me that world leaders should be discussing it every chance they get.

  3. if every time there is a recession somewhere in the world, the politicians’ response is to stimulate consumption hence CO2 emissions then it’s going to take a hell of a long time to make any progress on reducing emissions at all.

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