Two Ideas for the G20 to keep the US in the climate-change lifeboat

Image: Céline CharveriatAt the recent G7 energy ministerial in Rome, the Trump administration’s listlessness on climate change prevented attendees from being able to sign off on an endorsement of the Paris climate deal. With the G7 leaders summit in Taormina now only one month away, and the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg only two months after that, it seems Donald Trump is yet to be won over by those in his cabinet who believe it would be a mistake for an American President to attend both summits as the first world leader to cut and run from the Paris Agreement.

However, as tempting or as satisfying as it may be to those like billionaire Michael Bloomberg who think we should simply press on and forget about the US under Trump, the consensus-based nature of the G20 makes it difficult to conceive of any subsequent G7 or G20 statement that would not sound depressingly hollow in the wake of a US renunciation of climate change action. For the G20 to get a pass mark in 2017, it must minimally strive to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, which is, after all, designed to carry the world through to the end of this century.

How much influence anyone outside of the Trump cabinet has on the President’s thinking, let alone outside of the US, is an open question, but there are a few ways the remaining G20 members might lightly pressure, or even entice, the US administration into not rocking the life-boat of the Paris Agreement any more than it otherwise might. In terms of pressure, the optics of ceding global leadership on climate change to China or some China-EU partnership could be galvanising to those concerned about the decline of the US on the world stage. Alternatively, given Trump’s promise to deliver “clean coal”, perhaps a compromise can be reached that involves the US at least investing more in carbon capture storage research in lieu of any other climate-friendly policy, and thereby not jumping out of the de-carbonisation movement altogether.

Stick: the pressure of being a pariah?

Between 2013 through 2016, President Xi Jinping of China and former US President Barack Obama made a habit of pre-empting G20 summits with joint statements on the importance of combating climate change. On each occasion, and particularly in 2014, these statements from the world’s two largest emitting nations were seen as valuable momentum boosters for those G20 members looking to sway their more hesitant G20 colleagues into more forceful language on climate action. Given the prevarication of the new US Cabinet on precisely what stance to take on the Paris Agreement, and climate change more broadly, it is difficult to envision a similar China-US statement in advance of this year’s G20 summit, however there is no reason why Germany, or maybe even the EU (pending the outcomes of the French runoff vote, perhaps) could not step into the breach.

It is worth noting that the actual content of the joint statements between 2013-2016 were not always of an earth-shattering nature, with some involving more substantive outcomes than others: in 2013, China and the US agreed to limit HFCs (‘super greenhouse gases’ that have a global warming potential far in excess than that of C0­2) as per the Montreal Protocol; in 2014, both Obama and Xi announced previously unreleased targets for emissions reductions; in 2015 the two leaders essentially reiterated previous commitments; and in 2016, the two leaders used their pre-G20 meeting to simultaneously ratify the Paris Agreement on behalf of their two countries. Yet the political messaging coming out of each meeting was clear – these two powerful, economically huge, and carbon-intensive countries were prepared to join in the global effort on climate change, making it that much harder for G20 climate laggards to remain unmoved by the actions of their peers.

Should Germany and China, or preferably the EU and China, be able to release a similar statement in advance of this year’s G20 statement, the absence of the US from any such dialogue will speak for itself. This is not to say the US should automatically be left out of any such pre-summit agreement – the best outcome would be a repeat of previous year’s dialogues, and both the EU and China should make diplomatic overtures towards this end. The global signal of turning down such an offer would certainly be stark – and the US administration would have to weigh up domestic point-scoring against the loss of international stature.

On the other side of the coin, either China and Germany, or China and the EU, would be able to stake out positions as good global citizens prepared to be at the forefront of efforts against climate change. Zou Ji, a senior Chinese negotiator at the UN Climate talks, essentially confirmed the intent of China to “occupy the moral high ground” and improve “China’s international image” via climate action at last year’s UNFCCC talks in Morocco: “China’s influence and voice are likely to increase in global climate governance, which will then spill over into other areas of global governance and increase China’s global standing, power and leadership”. From an EU perspective, this could also be the kind of positive messaging that the union badly needs to rally around in 2017. There are plenty of issues that could form the basis of any such statement, some of which are covered in the G20 insights platform for policy proposals on Climate policy and finance, but the important thing is that in a moment where global leadership on climate change seems to be wanting, that some big players step into that void.

Carrot: a win-win in carbon capture storage?

Carbon capture storage (CCS) has more than a few critics. The technology is expensive, yet to be made cost-effective, and is seen by many as a mythical concept that is only really supported by fossil-fuel companies attempting to delay the demise of their respective industries. To date, there is very little evidence that the technology is going to solve excessive climate emissions any time soon. Indeed, of the two working CCS initiatives currently in operation, neither is profitable, and both in fact rely on pumping in C02 gas into a nearby oil reserve to dislodge previously unobtainable oil (hardly the noblest of climate outcomes).

However, it is important to distinguish between CCS as a way of storing emissions, and the notion of ‘clean coal technology’, as the two are often confused. If made cost-effective, CCS would certainly be a boon to capturing coal emissions before they reach the atmosphere, however up to half of the potential of CCS lies in restricting emissions from industries that are not going to be phased out due to declining costs in renewable energy production: we will need carbon intensive products like steel, cement and ammonia for a long time yet.

To really reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, namely keeping the average global temperature rise by the end of the century to below 2oC, some form of CCS as part of a wider portfolio of mitigation measures will probably be necessary. This has even been acknowledged by the International Panel on Climate Change. It is true that there are alternative lower-cost ways of bringing down emissions in the near term, but given Donald Trump has promised to bring back “beautiful clean coal”, investment in CCS technology towards this end is probably better than no investment in any climate-friendly policy at all. If American investment in CCS research provides newer insights over the next few years, and leads to more efficient CCS initiatives than those that exist currently, then that would be a positive thing.

If a way can be found for the Trump administration to deploy CCS funding within the US as part of its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the Paris Agreement, and for this to serve as a way for the G20 to convince the US to at least remain inside the climate-change lifeboat for the next few years, then it is an idea worth pursuing.

We are not living in an ideal world. At a time when climate change threatens the livelihood and wellbeing of so many, including the planet’s ecosystem itself, the above ideas are not so much about preventing ‘the perfect’ from being the enemy of ‘the good’, as much as they are about holding on to what we can until the rescue ships arrive.

Image: Hugh Jorgensen

Hugh Jorgensen works as a Policy Advisor in International Relations, G20 / T20

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