Leaders of the world’s biggest economies agreed Sunday to stop funding coal-fired power plants in poor countries and made a vague commitment to seek carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century” as they wrapped up a Rome summit before the much larger United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
While Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron described the Group of 20 summit as a success, the outcome disappointed climate activists, the chief of the U.N. and Britain’s leader. The U.K. is hosting the two-week Glasgow conference and had looked for more ambitious targets to come out of Rome.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the G-20’s commitments mere “drops in a rapidly warming ocean.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres agreed the outcome was not enough.
“While I welcome the #G20’s recommitment to global solutions, I leave Rome with my hopes unfulfilled – but at least they are not buried,” Guterres tweeted. “Onwards to #COP26 in Glasgow.”
The G-20 countries represent more than three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and Britain had hoped for a “G-20 bounce” going into the Glasgow COP26 meeting. Environmentalists and scientists have described the U.N. conference as the world’s “last best hope” for nailing down commitments to limit the global rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial average.
The summit laid bare the divisions that still exist between Western countries that polluted the planet the most historically but are now seeing emissions decline and the emerging economies led by China whose emissions are rising as their economies grow.
Britain pushed for a commitment to achieve climate neutrality or net-zero emissions, meaning a balance between greenhouse gases added to and removed from the atmosphere, by 2050.
The United States and the European Union have set 2050 as their own deadline for reaching net-zero emissions, while China, Russia and Saudi Arabia are aiming for 2060. The leaders of those three countries didn’t come to Rome for the summit.
In the end, the G-20 leaders arrived at a compromise to achieve climate neutrality “by or around mid-century,” not a set year.
Before leaving Rome, U.S. President Joe Biden called it “disappointing’ that G-20 members Russia and China ‘basically didn’t show up” with commitments to address the scourge of climate change ahead of the U.N. climate conference.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are not expected to attend the conference in Glasgow, although they are sending senior officials to the international COP26 talks.
“The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia…and China basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change. And there’s a reason why people should be disappointed,” Biden said, adding: “I found it disappointing myself.”
Biden comments came in response to a reporter’s question about the modest pledges made during the G-20 summit.
“We made commitments here from across the board in terms of what we’re going to bring to (COP26),” the president said. “As that old trade saying goes, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pushed back at the West’s target date. “Why do you believe 2050 is some magic figure?” Lavrov asked at a news conference. “If it is an ambition of the European Union, it is the right of other countries also to have ambitions….No one has proven to us or anybody else that 2050 is something everyone must subscribe to.”
Italy’s Draghi said the declaration went further on climate than any G-20 statement before it. He noted that it referred to keeping the 1.5-degree global warming target within reach, something that science shows will be hard to accomplish unless the world dramatically cuts emissions from fossil fuels.
At the Rome summit, leaders agreed to “put an end to the provision of international public finance for new unabated coal power generation abroad by the end of 2021.” That refers to financial support for building coal plants abroad.
Western countries have been moving away from such financing and major Asian economies are following suit: Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the U.N. General Assembly last month that Beijing would stop funding such projects, and Japan and South Korea made similar commitments earlier in the year. China has not set an end date for building coal plants at home, however. Coal is still China’s main source of power generation, and both China and India have resisted proposals for a G-20 declaration on phasing out domestic coal consumption.