Climate change is rarely a main talking point at the G7 leaders’ summit, but as US President Joe Biden proclaimed that “America is back at the table” on the final day of this year’s meeting, by extension, so too was climate change.
Past summits with Donald Trump representing the United States struggled to culminate in cohesive group statements between its members – the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada, plus the European Union. But in the English county of Cornwall over the weekend, leaders appeared to agree that this is the crucial decade that will determine the world’s future, even its very existence.
There was concrete progress earlier in the summit from G7 ministers, and a vision laid out by leaders for a net zero world (where all greenhouse gases emitted are removed from the atmosphere) that would take a green approach to everything, from the economic recovery from the pandemic to the way new infrastructure is built in the developing world.
What was lacking in the final communiqué, however, was the detail that climate change experts were hoping for.
G7 meetings are notorious for making bold promises only to break them. Often world leaders’ vision just isn’t backed by lawmakers at home.
This year, there were some ambitious collective targets, to halve emissions by 2030 from 2010 levels, for example, but no individual country increased its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and goals were set with no firm deadlines or measurables. In cases where they were, they were largely underwhelming.
The leaders said, for example, that they would aim to reach net zero by 2050 at the latest. That’s about 20 years too late, according to Catherine Pettengell, interim head of the UK’s branch of Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 civil society organizations in over 130 countries.
“We were really expecting to see the G7 step up and send a strong signal ahead of COP26 that they’ve really done their homework and were ready to act,” she told CNN, referring to international climate change talks planned in Glasgow later this year.
She is particularly concerned about the lack of progress on a climate finance fund agreed to more than a decade ago. By 2020, developed nations were supposed to start transferring $100 billion a year to the developing world to help them adapt to climate change. The idea was that wealthy countries had historically done more to contribute to climate change while poorer nations will be worst affected by its impact.
The world missed that 2020 deadline and is still way off keeping its promise. The US and UK had already doubled their annual contributions, and over the weekend, Germany and Canada at least doubled their pledges too. The other G7 members are lagging.
“Even with new announcements from Germany and Canada, all G7 countries need to go further and faster with their individual commitments as well as take collective responsibility for achieving the $100 billion goal before COP26,” Pettengell said.
“They acknowledge in the communiqué that more commitments must come by COP. So I think the question is, ‘Why not now? What’s the delay?’ Developing countries deserve to have the confidence going into COP 26 that the Paris Agreement will be delivered. And it can’t go down to the wire. These leaders need to prioritise building trust and momentum now with the four and a half months left to COP 26.”
There’s a lot at stake. Carbon emissions are at their highest level in history, despite more than a year of the world’s economies slowing during the pandemic. The goal is to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Earth is already at 1.3C, and if it exceeds that threshold, millions more people will be at risk of extreme heat waves, drought and flooding. Food shortages will worsen. Entire species will face extinction. Coral reefs will all but disappear.
Environmental groups had hoped Japan and Canada in particular would increase their emissions reduction pledges. The countries’ commitments fall short of those of their G7 allies.
Japan had agreed to wind down its more inefficient, old coal power stations, but it is still heavily reliant on the fossil fuel. Canada pledged to reach net zero by 2050, two decades later than some of its G7 allies.
When asked by CNN on Saturday if Japan would boost its pledge, Press Secretary Tomoko Yoshida said he shouldn’t speculate around the plans of Japan’s leaders, adding that “we’ve committed ourselves to join the international efforts and also … engagement with companies” to achieve its current targets.
Canada’s foreign affairs ministry did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
The race to net zero
Ahead of the leaders’ summit, ministers in finance, and environment and energy hammered out some breakthrough agreements, including making it mandatory for big business to disclose the climate impacts of their operations by 2022; to protect 30% of their country’s land and sea by 2030, in line with scientific advice; and to stop funding coal generation around the world by year’s end, an important step to phase out the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel.
And in recognition that climate change measures need to be integrated in both the economic recovery from the pandemic and all future approaches to infrastructure and development, the G7 launched a vision for an alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative called, a little less memorably, the “Build Back Better World” plan, which will promote sustainable, low-carbon development.
China has deals with more than 100 countries, most in the developing world, to build major infrastructure projects, like railroads, airports and motorways. The US and its allies meet and coordinate their responses to China, partly in response to it growing global influence through such programs.
The G7 may have served as a stepping-stone to COP 26, where there is growing pressure on countries to nail down those details missing from Sunday’s closing statement. There is likely to be a strong focus there on achieving net zero.
Yet Tim Smit, an environmentalist and co-founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, says the idea of net zero is “rubbish.”
Net zero will not bring an end to the emission of carbon or the use of fossil fuels, Smit told CNN. Instead, he says, it will allow business as usual for the worst emitters.
“All I’m saying about net zero is what I also say about carbon capture – it is a device often used by vested interests in fossil fuels to imply the problem is under control with technology, technology that is still being developed, as if that will sort things out. And it is exactly like you being a chain smoker not stopping because you’ve been told a pill is imminent, that will prevent you getting lung cancer,” he said.
Carbon capture is the removal of carbon either at the fossil fuel’s source or from the atmosphere.
Real emissions cuts and low-carbon economies, and eventually a full transition to renewables, is what’s needed, he said.
Smit’s Eden Project wants to prove that it’s possible to establish systems that create no waste and no emissions. The project converted a china clay pit – a wasteland and eyesore – to a lush expanse of trees and dome-shaped greenhouses that nurture plants from all over the world.
The Eden Project grows everything from vegetables and tea, to hops to make beer and plants to use as natural clothing dyes. It’s working to clean the human waste its own visitors provide as a water source, and it is exploring geothermal as its main source of energy.
The project is profitable too, and has created green jobs. It cost £140 million to build but has brought in £2.2 billion to the local economy, and attracted 22 million visitors, according to Smit.
The hope is Eden can inspire people around the world to come up with similar systems and solutions.
“If Eden can demonstrate, and do the measuring, to give confidence to others to know how this works, we don’t need to change the world – the world is full of smarter people than us,” Smit said.
“They just need to be given information and good data.”