Buenos Aires will host the 2018 G20 Summit on November 30, and while many observers may be watching dynamics between the US and China on trade policy, the G20 remains a critical forum on environmental and climate issues. "It's not just a one-off moment on environmental and climate issues; the G20 process throughout the year is a key context for addressing these critical concerns," said David Waskow, director of WRI's International Climate Initiative.
Few international bodies are as powerful as the Group of Twenty (G20). A forum for the world's biggest economies to discuss international financial stability, it has surpassed the Group of Seven (G7) as the main international economic council. G20 members account for about two-thirds of the world's population, 85 percent of gross world product—and 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Its influence extends through financial markets to sectors of interest for environment and sustainable development, such as commodities, infrastructure and energy. This year, all of these issues have been discussed by the G20 in the process that culminates—but does not end—with the Buenos Aires meeting. (Indeed, organizations including WRI have been providing input to the G20 all year.)
Argentina, the current G20 president, called sustainability "a core value that should serve as a unifying framework to meet economic, social and environmental goals," and said that "taking care of our common home is in everyone's interest, because the responsibility towards our future generations is shared by all. Now is the time to act."
If the G20 means to act, here are five ways it could do so to supercharge climate progress and sustainable development. As these examples illustrate, economic and financial policy is environmental policy:
1. What Does a Sustainable Food Future Entail?
One of Argentina's identified priorities for this G20 meeting—along with The Future of Work, Infrastructure for Development and Gender Mainstreaming—is A Sustainable Food Future. Items under discussion include soil erosion and food security.
It's unclear what might come from this discussion on the sustainability front, but the potential for action is enormous. "Food loss and waste apparently is on the agenda," said Craig Hanson, director of Food, Forest and Water at WRI. "The G20 has a unique opportunity to affirm member commitment to halving food loss and waste by 2030."
Halving food loss and waste would take a major step toward creating a sustainable food future, generating economic benefits and helping reduce hunger.
2. Will Infrastructure Be Sustainable and Climate-Resilient?
The agenda for the Finance Track, coordinated by the Argentine Ministry of the Treasury and the Central Bank, includes an emphasis on "infrastructure for development" and "sustainable finance." These are much-needed: $90 trillion is expected to be spent on infrastructure in the next 15 years, doubling the world's stock of infrastructure on the ground today.
G20 countries have previously endorsed the idea they should only invest in "quality" infrastructure. But efforts to rigorously include sustainability or climate resiliency in the definition of quality infrastructure have failed so far. "We need a harmonized definition of 'sustainable infrastructure' that includes elements of both low-carbon approaches as well as resilience to climate change impacts," said Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, director of the Sustainable Finance Center at WRI. One place to watch may be the new adaptation work program of the Climate Sustainability Working Group (PDF). Its objective of "sharing country experiences and promoting enhanced efforts for adaptation and resilience-building" could provide auspices for the conversation on infrastructure to grow legs; Germany is leading review of case studies in this line of study that will continue into 2019. Whether this conversation is ultimately mainstreamed into the Finance infrastructure track is something to watch.
This issue also raises a thorny question for next year's president, Japan, which has continued to export fossil fuel infrastructure (by financing fossil fuel projects abroad or exporting technology used in fossil fuel infrastructure). "We've had a notable shift with multilateral development banks [like the World Bank] and private finance away from risky investments in coal. This is a time when G20 countries should step up and show leadership as well," added Helen Mountford, director of economics at WRI.
3. What's the Schedule for Eliminating Fossil Fuel Subsidies?
The 2009 Pittsburgh G20 communique included a momentous commitment to "phase out and rationalize over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies while providing targeted support for the poorest." These subsidies don't make sense for the economy or the environment, but measure in the billions of dollars each year—at least $373 billion from 2010 to 2015, according to an OECD review.
Almost a decade later, there's been little progress. What's the problem? "No one ever defined medium term," said Mountford, "and now, almost ten years later, a number of countries are still delaying phase-out of these distorting subsidies." Setting the timetable—perhaps in the context of the recent IPCC 1.5°C report, which quantified some of the urgency around the drawdown of carbon emissions—would be a good step.
It's not that there hasn't been any progress. G20 countries agreed to a voluntary peer review of their individual fossil fuel subsidies, a stepping stone towards phasing out wasteful subsidies. This year, Indonesia and Italy are participating.
Indonesia in particular is interesting: While President Widodo capped the diesel subsidy and "scrapped subsidies for petrol" in 2015, these efforts have stalled ahead of a competitive election. The peer review could provide lessons for other countries working to reform their consumer subsidies.
4. Will More G20 Nations Release Long-Term Strategies?
Another priority identified by Argentina for the Climate Sustainability Working Group: long-term strategies. Also called "mid-century long-term low GHG emissions development strategies," these are documents outlining how a country will reach net-zero emissions in the second half of the century, a goal laid out by the Paris Agreement on climate change. Releasing these now sets countries up to successfully align their economic planning with the low-carbon transition, and further catalyzes that transition by sending a strong signal to other players, such as neighboring countries, investors and the public.
Earlier this year, we published a blog highlighting that only six of the G20 have released long-term strategies for climate action. Katherine Ross, associate with the WRI Climate Program, said "Any G20 country that hasn't studied for its LTS yet is lagging behind. Releasing these would show the world that the biggest economies realize their development and economic aspirations are tied to climate action."
In summary, Argentina made developing low-carbon pathways a priority, and we can expect lots of high-level messaging on climate, except must wait to see…
5. Will the Communique Reflect Consensus or Division?
Every G20 meeting results in a public communique that records the group's shared priorities and any new commitments. The recent IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C provided a dire assessment and underscored the need–and opportunities–for urgent action to tackle the climate challenge. At last year's G20 summit, the communique included a section on climate change that noted both U.S. recalcitrance and resolve from the rest of the G20, including around the Paris Agreement.
Argentina will be keen to avoid a repeat of this scenario, and is likely to push for a single, clean communique. Whether it can achieve strong language on climate while ensuring it is acceptable to U.S. representatives may serve as a bellwether for international climate cooperation writ large. "It's aspirational that the United States would endorse the Paris Agreement, but hopefully they will not block endorsement by other parties," said Distinguished Senior Fellow in the WRI Global Climate Program Andrew Light.
Can G20 Catalyze COP—and Beyond?
The G20 is an ongoing process. This year's work will continue next year in Japan, and Shinzo Abe has said climate will figure prominently in the 2019 agenda. They have an opportunity to focus the world's attention on emerging opportunities to accelerate climate action, including issues like adaptation (Japan is a leader in meteorological data; how can we make it available for developing countries and small-to-medium enterprises?) and best practices and standards for low-carbon technology.
The G20 provides ample opportunity for world leaders to show their peers that they are serious about climate change. Sustainable development and climate action will not be most effective until the world's biggest economies—and polluters—are fully mobilized for sustainable development and climate action.