The G7 leaders concluded their annual summit yesterday with a declaration that put climate change front and center. As with all G7 communiqués, most of the content reaffirms steps that the leaders have already promised to take and, in many cases, are already taking. But, as usual, there are some interesting wrinkles. I’m struck in particular the parts that seem to be the most important are different from those that have generated the most headlines. Here are a couple highlights in each category.
Interesting and Overlooked
“[A Paris] agreement should enhance transparency and accountability including through binding rules at its core to track progress towards achieving targets…. This should enable all countries to follow a low-carbon and resilient development pathway….”
The United States has long pressed for a shift away from binding emissions reduction commitments and toward a mix of nationally grounded emission-cutting efforts and binding international commitments to transparency and verification. European countries have often taken the other side, emphasizing the importance of binding targets (or at least policies) for cutting emissions. Now it looks like the big developed countries are on the same page as the United States. The language above is all about binding countries to transparency – and there isn’t anything elsewhere in the communiqué about binding them to actual emissions goals. This doesn’t guarantee a smooth landing in Paris – China, India, and others will resist some of the binding transparency and accountability measures that the G7 leaders want – but at least the big developed countries appear to be forming a fairly united front.
“We will intensify our support particularly for vulnerable countries own efforts to manage climate change related disaster risk and to build resilience. We will aim to increase by up to 400 million the number of people in the most vulnerable developing countries who have access to direct or indirect insurance coverage against the negative impact of climate change related hazards by 2020 and support the development of early warning systems in the most vulnerable countries.”
This is the most substantive portion of the climate part of the communiqué. It reflects an increasing focus on adaptation in general and on insurance in particular. Existing institutions – notably the World Bank – are decently positioned to deliver on these goals (though meeting them by 2020 will be challenging). Indeed this part of the communiqué is unusually straightforward, and therefore well suited to clear follow-through. The mushiest bit is the undefined “climate change related hazards”. Ideally G7 countries would help vulnerable populations get access to insurance against extreme weather hazards of all origins – whether or not those are generated by climate change – and, in practice, that’s presumably what insurance would do.
Headline Grabbing But Less Than Meets the Eye
“We emphasize the deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonization of the global economy over the source of this century…. As a common vision for a global goal of greenhouse gas emissions reductions we support sharing with all parties to the UNFCCC the upper end of the latest IPCC recommendation of 40 to 70% reductions by 2050 compared to 2010 recognizing that this challenge can only be met by a global response.”
This statement generated the biggest headlines (“G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels”), but it’s also the least consequential. Most reactions ignore the fact that the G8 leaders already agreed to “the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050” in advance of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. (You judge the results.) And the idea that an 85-year goal will have much impact on present policy or investment is a bit ridiculous. (Had you told a physicist in 1905 that a fifth of U.S. electricity would be generated by nuclear fission within 85 years, they would have said, “What’s a nucleus or fission?”)
News reports have experts debating whether Paris can assure the world of cuts this deep. The answer should be obvious: it can’t. No decisions made today will assure any particular outcome in 2050 or 2100. For all practical purposes, the two-degree target that diplomats have talked about for the last five or so years has always been understood by policymakers to correspond to roughly a halving of global emissions by midcentury. If the-two degree target didn’t motivate deep enough emissions cuts to actually meet it, recasting it in terms of global emissions won’t change that. Having a basic guide is useful, but beyond that, the details are pretty unimportant. Bottom line: Fiddling with distant targets is a great way to generate headlines, but doesn’t do much to affect policy and emissions themselves; at best it’s marginally irrelevant, at worst it lets people feel good without doing anything.
“We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Copenhagen Accord to mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion a year from a wide variety of sources, both public and private in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation.”
This superficially sounds big: the United States and others pledged in 2009 to mobilize massive amounts of money for developing countries; observers have been skeptical that they would deliver; but now G7 leaders are emphasizing their “strong commitment” to follow through. In practice, this is mostly an exercise in redefining the original pledge so that more private financial flows get counted toward the $100 billion. This isn’t necessarily bad as a matter of policy, but the political reality is that leaders from many developing countries want (and, at Copenhagen, thought they were getting) something else. It will be up to them in Paris to decide whether they’re ok with this redefinition of the goalposts. If they are, the conference is far more likely to be successful. But what will ultimately matter politically is not whether G7 leaders claim that they’re meeting their financial pledges; it’s whether developing country leaders are willing to go along.