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Disappointing G20 sets the scene for a difficult COP

The main action of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow gets underway in a matter of hours. The tension is rising as organisers contemplate the prospect of the Paris Agreement “crumpling at the first reckoning”.

Paris was important, of course, as it was the place where the world committed for the first time to try to stabilise temperatures at 1.5°C. Scientists have made it clear that the only way to keep that target within reach is to make substantial cuts to emissions over the coming decade. After 2030, that window will have closed.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hoping that the gathering of G20 leaders in Rome this weekend would be a fillip for the imminent COP26 negotiations. Still, he could not disguise his disappointment at the closing press conference yesterday that the commitments of these major economies – responsible for some 80 per cent of global emissions – had only “inched forward”.

The incremental steps amounted largely to a commitment by the G20 in its communiqué ‘to pursue efforts to limit [the global temperature increase] to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’ – an ambition already set out within the 2015 Paris Agreement, which was signed by 192 parties to the UN convention.

The communiqué also included a heavily contested and ultimately watered-down affirmation ‘to put an end to the provision of international public finance for new unabated coal power generation abroad by the end of 2021’. While significant, it fell short of an agreement to end the use of coal on the G20’s home turf.

All told, the slow progress does not bode well for the two weeks ahead.

But there does remain one wild card: the unrelenting public attention and pressure, which is currently at a fever pitch. COP26 is dominating the TV airwaves and front pages of newspapers across Britain, Europe and the world over, and it’s unlikely to die down any day soon. Tens of thousands of NGOs and business observers who support more decisive action (including the Clean Energy Council) have descended upon Glasgow. They will be working to draw attention to the immense risks of inaction, as well as the vast upside of changing course. The scrutiny will make it impossible for the Coalition to change the subject – try as they might – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Emissions Reduction Minister, Angus Taylor, will be feeling the heat right up until the last day of the conference.