Did the G20 deliver ambitious climate & energy outcomes?

Most climate & energy targets mentioned were reiterations of goals laid out in other fora

By Trishant Dev, Khushboo Pareek, Avantika Goswami
Published: Monday 11 September 2023
Photo: @narendramodi / X (formerly Twitter)

The Group of 20 (G20), which includes the world’s 19 biggest economies, and the European Union, held their summit on September 9-10, 2023 in New Delhi. 

The summit started just a day after the release of the first Global Stocktake (GST) report by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which stated that “the window to keep limiting warming to 1.5°C within reach is closing rapidly”. 

The G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, released on September 9, provided a view of the signals that world powers like the G20 are putting out on intent to act on climate change.  

The Summit was headlined by the addition of the African Union — a 55-member bloc as a permanent member of the G20 — signaling greater representation of the Global South at the international forum. 

Many have considered the consensus on the declaration, achieved on day one of the Summit, a diplomatic win for the Indian G20 Presidency. But from a climate and energy perspective, if consensus is sought on a low ambition package to begin with, is it truly an achievement?

To begin with, most of the climate and energy targets mentioned were reiterations of goals laid out in other fora such as UNFCCC, and are not brand new targets or analyses. 

The declaration document does have a few clear wins. It ensures that demands of the Global South, such as finance and green development, are not overshadowed by difference of views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as has been observed in various other international fora over the past year.

The most promising outcome for climate and energy deliberations was the commitment by the countries to triple the global renewable energy (RE) capacity by 2030. This was coupled with a significant statement on finance — the recognition that low-cost financing is needed for the energy transition in developing countries. 

Tripling of renewable energy 

The target of tripling RE capacity aligns with the International Energy Agency (IEA) assessment, which emphasises that “the single most important lever to bring about the reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions needed by 2030 is to triple the global installed capacity of renewable power by the end of the current decade”. 

The same target was also set at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue 2023. And it is a successor of a similar commitment observed earlier this year by G7 countries, who committed to reach solar capacity of 1 terawatt by 2030. This shows momentum towards the possible establishment of a global target at the upcoming COP28 in Dubai.

The renewable energy target was mentioned in the same breath as “other zero and low-emission technologies, including abatement and removal technologies” in the G20 document —  a likely inclusion from major fossil fuel-producing countries who wish to see carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology promoted in climate discussions.

Call for low-cost financing 

The G20 document recorded commitment to “work towards facilitating access to low-cost financing for developing countries, for existing as well as new and emerging clean and sustainable energy technologies and for supporting the energy transitions”. 

This has been a demand by many Global South stakeholders, as highlighted in the Centre for Science and Environment’s report, which calls for scaling up of concessional finance for developing countries who face prohibitively high costs of capital for green technologies. 

The G20 also noted the $5.8-5.9 trillion needed by developing countries to implement their Nationally Determined Commitments, a figure identified by the UNFCCC Standing Committee on Finance in its report, and $4 trillion for clean energy technologies as recommended by IEA

The declaration also called for an ambitious second replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) for 2024-2027. The British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced on the Summit’s closing day, a contribution of $2 billion for GCF in its second replenishment, which is 12.7 per cent higher than the United Kingdom’s previous contribution to the GCF during 2020-2023.

The declaration, however, lacked in providing any new discourse or demand on the loss and damage fund and the New Collective Quantified Goal. 

The G20 reiterated the current hegemonic viewpoint of private finance playing a major role in climate action. The declaration recognises “the significant role of public finance as an important enabler of climate actions” but only for leveraging private finance and de-risking. 

The document argued in favor of Multilateral Development Banks (MDB) mobilising private finance, despite data showing that this has failed. 

Experts have shown that in 2021, for every dollar of climate finance MDBs provided, they mobilised only 25 cents in private finance, a fall from 26 cents the previous year — a ratio that should be higher than 1. 

The “billions to trillions” agenda in the same vein is repeated by the G20, despite experts recognising that the mandate has not worked. In fact, experts have also highlighted ways in which private finance’s core mandate of profitability can be at odds with public climate goals. 

Dependence on fossil fuels

Energy security remains a priority for the G20 countries, many of whom are in the crosshairs of an energy crisis created by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The declaration, thus, emphasises the “importance of maintaining uninterrupted flows of energy from various sources, suppliers and routes”. 

Fossil fuels find mention only in the phasedown of ‘unabated coal’ — a target announced at COP26 in 2021 — while overlooking the colossal contribution to GHG emissions from fossil fuels such as oil and gas, collectively accounting for approximately 54 per cent of global emissions from fuel combustion.

The document does mention the phasing out of the inefficient fossil fuel subsidies in the medium term in order to implement the commitment made in Pittsburgh in 2009. However, the G20 nations just in 2022 spent a striking amount of $1 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies.

The declaration also mentioned development of global markets for hydrogen by developing voluntary and mutually agreed standards.

In the grander scheme, the entire process underscored a sobering reality: Fossil fuel economies continue to exert influence, perpetuating business as usual. The UNFCCC’s GST report stated that “scaling up renewable energy and phasing out all unabated fossil fuels are indispensable elements of just energy transitions to net zero emissions”. 

But unless we see a meaningful scaling down of fossil fuel power generation and consumption, led by wealthy countries of the Global North, in parallel with renewable energy development, the promise of RE investment cannot make a transformative dent in global emissions.

Global Biofuel Alliance

A Global Biofuel Alliance was announced at the G20 Summit, aimed at enhancing biofuel production, trade and consumption. Biofuel diplomacy, previously attempted by Brazil during the administration of President Lula, involved forging partnerships with African nations, the EU and the US to expand global bioethanol production, consumption and trade, but it was deemed a failure.

Many countries, including India, have implemented biofuel policies with blending targets. Achieving blending targets in biofuel production requires stepping up production and trade. 

Top 10 biofuel producers in the world; countries in bold are supporting the Global Biofuels Alliance as G20 members. (Data: BP Statistical Review, 2023; Visualisation: CSE)

Developing countries must approach the biofuel economy cautiously. Biofuels produced from agricultural or municipal solid waste could have lower emissions than fossil fuels. But industrial production of biofuel demands land-use change and thus could lead to higher lifecycle emissions

The production of corn-based ethanol in the US is likely at least 24 per cent more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to emissions resulting from land-use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion. 

For developing nations like India, the alliance should equally emphasise sustainable land-use practices and the transition from first to second-generation biofuels (agricultural and municipal wastes, algae), alongside meeting its primary objectives. 

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