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World’s Wealthiest Countries Gather to Admit Continued Failure to Address Climate Change

The elephant in the room at meetings like the G20 is that, obviously, these nations are also the most prolific emitters.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, arrive at Indira Gandhi Airport for an official visit ahead of the G20 Summit, on September 8, in New Delhi.

The G20 talks kicking off in India this weekend will take place during what may well be the world’s hottest year ever. New Delhi, the city where talks are happening, is still recovering from devastating floods. The meeting—of the world’s 19 wealthiest countries and the European Union, together responsible for nearly 80 percent of global power-sector emissions—comes at the outset of a summer marked by record heat, ongoing extreme floods, and deadly wildfires. Those climate-fueled events have hit rich and poor countries alike, and brought far more destruction to those with fewer resources to deal with them.

Headlines about the G20, meanwhile, have focused on the geopolitical tensions plaguing the talks, from divisions over the war in Ukraine to Chinese President Xi Jing Ping’s reported decision not to attend. Those divisions may now threaten the main prize of this and other G20 gatherings: its traditional joint communiqué summarizing new pledges and points of unity around which the bloc has reached a consensus.

When it comes to the climate crisis, the G20 will hash out a couple old chestnuts: potential commitments to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030, the ongoing efforts to phase out fossil fuels—coal, especially—and provide more financing for developing countries to decarbonize and adapt to climate change. Many of these issues are continuations of contentious, complex conversations that have been dragging on for years in the climate policy realm. But if there’s one thing G20 countries are united around, it’s an acknowledgment that we’re off course from meeting the core goal of the Paris climate agreement, to limit global temperature rise by “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The elephant in the room at meetings like these is that, obviously, the wealthiest and most powerful countries are also the most prolific emitters. A new study commissioned by Oxfam finds that climate pledges made by G20 nations would keep per-capita greenhouse gas emissions roughly steady through 2030. Per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, those would need to decrease by 45 percent worldwide through 2030 to cap warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The tensions among G20 members on climate policy are largely about who still gets to emit what as the world gets hotter. China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia all oppose proposals on the table to triple renewable energy capacity by the end of the decade and slash greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent five years after that. The United States and Europe, meanwhile, have repeatedly chided prolific coal use in India, China, and poorer developing countries. Since 2015, there has indeed been a troubling rise in coal emissions across the G20, led by India, Indonesia, and China. At the same time, the bloc has failed to deliver on its long-held pledge to provide $100 billion per year for climate mitigation and adaptation—something that would help countries ditch coal. Neither has there been a plan to deliver comprehensive debt relief for nations struggling to pay back loans.

Since the start of the year, meanwhile, the nonprofit Oil Change International finds that the U.S. has approved more fossil fuel financing than any other country, furnishing $1.5 billion to four projects. Germany came in second. Both were among the 38 countries signed on to the Glasgow Statement unveiled at the U.N. climate talks held in Scotland in 2021, pledging to end new direct public financing for overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of last year.

The watchword in elite climate policymaking circles has long been that widespread prosperity—measured in growth in gross domestic product—would trickle down into emissions reductions as countries develop the capacity to get off fossil fuels or even eliminate emissions from them. Key to that belief was the idea of decoupling emissions from growth: that countries could continue to grow their GDP while releasing fewer greenhouse gases—so-called “green growth.” While decoupling is indeed happening, researchers Jefim Vogel and Jason Hickel found in a Lancet Planetary Health paper published this week that current rates of decoupling in the wealthier countries they analyzed would take 220 years to reduce those states’ emissions by 95 percent.

Whatever effect ever-growing GDP is meant to have on carbon emissions, it has not made the world’s richest countries more amendable to helping others decarbonize. Economic indicators are not, after all, sentient. Politicians want to grow their favorite sectors as fast as they please. The preoccupation of U.S. domestic climate policy has been to supercharge power-sector decarbonization here with generous incentives for renewable energy, alongside modest tax breaks for other green industries. But growth in one sector won’t de-grow another: As the U.S. nurtures green industry, it’s likely to continue breaking records for domestic oil production. More than likely, that feat will be cheered on by the same administration demanding other countries cut fossil fuels.

World governments remain dangerously off track from meeting the goals they set for themselves on climate. Whether they produce a communiqué or not, G20 talks aren’t likely to change that.