Politics of Poverty

Trump continues to walk alone on climate: Reflections from the G20

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Oxfam stunt at the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: Mike Auerbach / Oxfam)

The G20 meeting in Hamburg was the latest moment for climate on the world stage, and again the US administration chose to bow out.

There is a lot to unpack from last week’s G20 summit: a high-stakes first meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, large protests – both violent and peaceful – flooding the streets of Hamburg, and an agenda dominated by North Korean missile tests and a potential global trade war over steel. It was, therefore, a critical test to ensure that attention was placed on climate change, which has become a prominent wedge issue in the US, and by extension the world.

Thankfully, President Trump failed to convince the rest of the world to follow his misguided position to abandon action on climate and to walk away from the Paris Agreement. Following an intense few days of negotiations in Hamburg, below are a few of my thoughts on the inner-workings that produced this outcome and what this means for global climate action moving forward.

Paris and climate change – the ‘best’ words!

One thing is now perfectly clear: the US is completely isolated from the world on climate change.

At the G7 summit, G6 leaders, in a striking rebuke of President Trump, included strong support for the Paris Agreement in the final communique. A week later, President Trump announced his intent to withdraw the US from the agreement entirely. This is why the stakes were even higher at the G20. The pressure was on the rest of the world to remain committed to tackling climate change despite President Trump’s actions.

And world leaders delivered. Following the strategy of G6 leaders, the G19 remained unified around an emphatic reaffirmation of the Paris Climate Agreement. It is rare to see such isolation on specific issues at these events, and so this bold action clearly signals global leaders’ willingness to move forward, even without the US.

Of course, this consensus was not always a guaranteed outcome. Just a few months ago, the G20 finance ministers refused to even mention the word climate in their meeting statement, largely at the urging of the Trump administration. Serious backsliding on climate from the rest of the world was a strong possibility.

However, in part due to a huge effort by the German G20 Presidency, the Summit ushered in a meaningful accord with strong climate references. In addition to the Paris Agreement, there is also plenty to like as well as build upon with the climate and energy provisions in full G20 communique. The Germans prioritized climate within the agenda leading up the Summit, and as a result, it emerged as the top ranked issue during the talks.

The art of the dumb deal

According to several negotiators, the G20 talks have never been this intense, with negotiations going round the clock, particularly on climate. One of the main sticking points at the talks was a line on fossil fuels. The United States insisted on the inclusion of specific language giving the US the ability to use ‘cleaner fossils’ to assist other countries with their mitigation priorities. This is problematic for a couple reasons.

First, while some fossil fuels can be considered cleaner than others, they will always come with far greater environmental and social costs than clean energy. So to say that the US can help with other countries’ mitigation needs with access to more fossils is senseless, and particularly deceptive.

Second, we have said, along with others such as the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, and the United Nations, that the best way to solve energy access and lift people out of poverty is to prioritize financing for clean energy. Increased use of fossil fuels, especially coal, will not meet the needs of the poor.

To be clear: a fossil fuel-centric path creates fewer jobs, more pollution, and limits economic growth for everyone when compared to the clean energy revolution. Despite the US’s persistence on ill-advised energy solutions, most major economies are pursuing low-carbon strategies in earnest, and many other non-state and sub-national actors are stepping up to act on climate, further isolating the Trump administration.

Work still to be done, one project at a time

Moving forward, the international community must continue to make good on their commitment to global climate action.

In addition to all actors raising their collective ambition to meet the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement, the task now is to closely watch the US and its inevitable push for fossil fuel projects, especially in developing countries. For example, the most likely channels for the US to try to push them through include the multilateral development banks, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US Export-Import Bank or USAID, each of which have specific criteria to assess the suitability of energy investments.

In many ways, the fight will move to these institutions, potentially one project at a time, where putting the needs of the poor at the heart of project-level assessments will remain a powerful tool. Doing so should ensure clean energy’s continual ascendance and meaningful global action on climate, leaving President Trump to keep walking alone.

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