Hope for G20 to be more ambitious on climate action fading

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday the G20 needs a sense of “urgency” to address the growing threat of climate change, as the leaders’ summit kicked off its second day with a session on climate action.

“Climate change cannot be denied,” he said on Twitter. “And climate action cannot be delayed. Working together with our partners, we need to tackle this global crisis with urgency and ambition.”

But negotiators working through the night did not appear to have made much headway on securing agreement to phase out coal power more quickly or hastening plans to get to net zero emissions.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the G20 summit host, made a last-ditch effort to urge the leaders of the world’s biggest economies to accept the reality of the situation.

“We face a simple choice,” he told leaders at the table. “We can act now or regret it later.”

Trudeau, centre, is shown with health-care workers and world leaders at the G20 summit in Rome on Saturday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Repeated attempts for Trudeau and Draghi to have a bilateral meeting in Rome were scuttled by time limitations. Saturday’s planned meeting was cancelled by Italy because Draghi was running too far behind. On Sunday, the rescheduled meeting was first on, then off because the morning climate session went long.

Another round of rescheduling and cancellation then took place when Trudeau’s scheduled meeting with Argentine President Alberto Fernandez interfered.

Canada did get some positive feedback on its climate policies from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. According to Canadian officials, Merkel told Trudeau it was bold to introduce a carbon price as an oil-producing country.

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Von der Leyen met with Trudeau for a one-on-one discussion Sunday morning at his hotel.

“I want to thank you for being such a strong, dedicated ally in the fight against climate change,” she told him. “I think this is the topic of not only today, but also the century, of maximum importance.”

Chinese involvement is key

The United Nations reiterated warnings this week that with the current policies promised by parties to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the Earth will warm more than 2.7 C by the end of this century.

The Paris accord aimed to keep the temperature below 2 C and as close to 1.5 C as possible. The G20 was debating how to reword that target to make 1.5 C more critical.

“Scientists tell us that under current policies, the consequence of climate change for the environment and the world’s population will be catastrophic,” Draghi said. “The cost of action, however high it may seem, is trivial compared to the price of inaction.”

For its part, Italy promised Sunday to triple its climate financing contribution to $1.4 billion US per year for the next five years.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, left, host of the G20 summit, speaks with Prince Charles at the La Nuvola conference centre in Rome on Sunday. (Aaron Chown/The Associated Press)

The prospect of progress at the two-day summit at the Rome Convention Centre dimmed in the days before the meeting when China submitted its new targets to the UN with barely any increase in ambition.

China still plans to keep growing its emissions until 2030 and isn’t agreeing to move its net zero target up from 2060. It was slightly more specific about using more renewable energy and planting more trees.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was also not at the table, choosing to send his foreign minister, Wang Yi, instead.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Saturday that Xi’s absence wasn’t ideal, but she wouldn’t comment on what impact she thought that may have on the climate talks.

“The G20, of course, is most effective when all the G20 leaders are at the table,” she said. “Having said that, I do think we also need to recognize that the fight against COVID is not finished yet, and different countries will take different decisions about international travel while we’re still finishing the fight against COVID.”

Xi was one of five G20 leaders who didn’t make the trip. The leaders of Russia, Mexico, Brazil and Japan also sent officials and participated themselves only virtually.

But China’s importance to the G20 negotiations on ending coal-fired electricity made Xi’s absence potentially the most troublesome. He is also not attending the COP26 summit, which began in Glasgow on Sunday.

Trudeau and Draghi had both hoped for a strong, united message on climate from the G20 to carry into COP26. The G20 isn’t just responsible for 80 per cent of global economic output; it also produces about 80 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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