Today, May 3, is 20 years to the day since the declaration signed at the Kyoto Protocol conference on climate change in Paris: the “Global Goals” for our environment and economy.
In this week’s G20 summit, President Donald Trump and most other leaders promised to keep meeting these goals, but said they would not account for the man-made contribution to climate change in the way the Paris Accords did. We expect Trump to waffle again and again, since he announced in 2017 that the United States would leave the deal. Otherwise, American leadership on these issues will be less certain over the next few years. As such, this month’s summit is not only a chance to move forward on climate, it’s also a chance to bring the global economy to a more sustainable course.
Unfortunately, I am afraid the G20’s action this week has fallen short.
Despite the continued American withdrawal from the Paris Accord, the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Japan said that they will extend their commitment to keeping the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to try to keep it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On climate change, they all supported comprehensive national strategies, reaffirmed their own emissions reduction commitments under the Paris agreement, and set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Their strong statements sent a strong signal that, while the United States might no longer join the international community in its work on climate, there are countries ready to step in.
But here is where the gains of last year and so far this year fall short. In our last three G20 meetings, they promised to set up a task force to promote the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, for commercial applications. If they fulfill that promise, HFCs could be frozen out of the atmosphere and used in refrigerators, air conditioners, air conditioners, computer chips, and other devices. This is a time for the leaders of G20 countries to show the whole world how serious they are about reducing emissions. Instead, the leaders made vague statements, such as asking our partners in the agreement to “reduce” HFCs, without defining what that means. Although China and India have agreed to reduce their HFC emissions in their own countries, even those commitments are weaker than those they made for their own coal-fired power plants, which have larger global impact.
It’s worth noting that climate science also shows that while we are slightly less likely to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius under HFC-free conditions, doing so will slow the burning of fossil fuels, making them last longer and could push us over the mark.
If we don’t act, we can expect carbon dioxide to jump to 1.5 degrees Celsius or beyond by 2035 or 2040, and could pass the 1.5 degree mark by the end of the century. Those changes will be deeply damaging to our health, our economies, and our communities, but more importantly to our children and grandchildren. In this regard, the G20 is headed in the wrong direction, because they still failed to acknowledge the link between climate change and climate change impacts on the poor.
I am disappointed that leaders from countries that do not admit climate science even as they try to promote policies that cause their carbon footprint to rise show no leadership on climate.
The clear statement in the Paris agreement that “no country can achieve its climate objectives while disregarding the facts on the ground” needs to be said aloud. Those countries that neglect this statement, which have more to lose by doing so, can run a risk of irrevocably damaging the public and the governments they lead. Ultimately, every country will have to respond to the science, but doing so now is a moral imperative for their own people and also for future generations.
I would have expected the G20 to make climate action a leading priority and take its responsibility seriously. They were certainly not able to meet the Paris deal because they failed to offer a clear leadership on climate change.
Liz Kaye is the director of the Center for Climate Policy and Strategy at Georgetown University. A version of this piece first appeared in InsideClimate News.