Climate not included: the G20 growth target will accelerate crisis

G20 leaders agreed to an economic growth target of 2.1% by 2018. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Despite Australia’s best efforts, climate change muscled its way onto the G20 agenda. The summit’s final communique included one paragraph restating the importance of international negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015.

But much more should have been done on climate at this G20 meeting. Clearly missing from post-summit analysis is the following criticism: the G20’s adopted economic growth target of 2.1% will accelerate the climate crisis unless this activity is fully integrated with efforts to mitigate climate change.

Climate at the G20

The United States and China’s surprise joint announcement of mitigation targets was deliberately made a few days before the G20 summit began. Then during the summit, President Barack Obama made a point of highlighting climate change in several prominent speeches.

Two crucial announcements were made about new contributions to the UN Green Climate Fund: pledges of US$3 billion from the United States and US$1.5 billion from Japan.

And, after reported “trench warfare”, Abbott was overruled in his proposed deletion of wording about fossil fuel subsidies from the summit’s final communique.

Taken together these events suggest, among other things, the low regard in which our prime minister is held by global leaders on climate change.

Nevertheless Abbott’s obstruction of attempts to make global warming a focal point for G20 discussion has slowed progress towards an effective post-2020 mitigation protocol at the UN climate conference in Paris next year.

This does not mean an agreement will not be finalised next year. The China-US announcement conclusively indicated that a new, albeit insufficiently ambitious, deal on targets is now within reach.

But without a discussion of climate change at the G20, we missed the chance to ensure that “super-charging economic growth” is reframed by and made compatible with global climate goals, so that all new major investment drives decarbonisation.

The opportunity missed

This G20 was an historic opportunity for global thought leadership and Australia, as the G20 host, was brilliantly placed to shape and drive that discussion. Several key reports had been launched in the weeks before the Brisbane meeting, providing it with crucial information to inform such an exchange.

Studies headed by Nicholas Stern and Jeffrey Sachs respectively concluded that a relatively small portion of the trillions of dollars of global investment expected over the next two decades, if well-directed, could decarbonise the global economy.

With careful guidance, they argue, an effective transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources could happen while also meeting the social and economic goals and needs of developing economies, in particular. (This logic lies at the heart of China’s latest commitment to peaking emissions growth, and increasing its reliance on non-fossil fuels to 20% of total energy production, by no later than 2030.)

Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s synthesis of its Fifth Assessment Report, with its blunt review of available scientific data and projections, indicated that the time for effective emissions reduction has almost run out.

We are now rocketing towards a brutal world of rapid warming, unprecedented in the evolutionary history of the human species and catastrophic for most of life on Earth.

Agreement is desperately required between the world’s 20 largest economies about how to meet global social needs while respecting global ecological boundaries.

A form of denial

Instead, the G20 persisted in their siloed thinking about economic activity on the one hand, and action around mitigation on the other. Integrating these two elements was the opportunity missed.

The G20’s current vision for a resilient global economy, for food security, and for poverty eradication and development, which lie at the heart of its final communique, is delusional when viewed in this context. The goal of 2.1% annual global economic growth by 2018, which does not focus centrally on the need for emissions reduction, accelerates this crisis.

The summit’s final communique contains one paragraph on climate change. It is number 19 among 21 and merely provides an anodyne restatement of the obvious, about the importance of the UN’s Paris climate meeting next year.

Comments elsewhere in the communique, about improvements in energy efficiency and in the global gas market, and about rationalising and phasing out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, miss the point about the need for economic activity that drives urgent emissions reduction.

Other states could have kicked open the door for such discussion. Instead, diplomatic politeness, intellectual sloth and Australia’s obstructive agenda prevailed.

Under Abbott’s watch, Australia has resumed its role as a laggard state with dangerously disproportionate influence on global climate affairs. Australia is again an anchor, dragging along the murky ocean floor of climate negotiations, slowing their progress.