Climate impasses could undermine G20 meeting

By Sara Schonhardt | 09/08/2023 06:52 AM EDT

President Joe Biden and most of his counterparts from the 20 richest nations will meet in India this weekend.

Leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies will gather in India this weekend amid divisions over fossil fuels, climate finance and energy transitions.

The meeting comes during the world’s hottest summer on record, with drought and other extreme weather events impacting tens of millions of people on multiple continents.

But geopolitical disagreements have kept countries from agreeing on how to tackle the climate problem, and many governments have hardened their positions since leaders last met in November.


“There’s a big risk that they don’t rise above the divisions that we saw in Goa and Chennai with the energy ministers and the climate and environment ministers meeting,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G.

It could be the first time that the G20 doesn’t issue a leaders’ declaration, in part due to sharp splits over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The 20 nations represented at the talks account for around 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and a failure to reach agreement on issues such as phasing out fossil fuels would make it much harder to find consensus among the nearly 200 countries that will meet later this year for global climate talks in the United Arab Emirates.

Climate finance and debt relief will likely be featured issues at the G20, which comes on the heels of a climate summit in Nairobi, Kenya, where developing countries called on wealthy, polluting nations to contribute more money to help poorer regions bear the impacts of climate change. India, which is presiding as president of this year’s G20, has said that climate finance will be a top priority.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that President Joe Biden will focus on efforts to reshape the world’s multilateral development banks and call on G20 members to provide debt relief to developing countries.

The U.S. has been leading a push for reform of the World Bank. It has also sought to offer developing nations an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure investment program that Sullivan insisted was not the reason behind changes at the U.S.-led bank.

“We believe that there should be high-standard, noncoercive lending options available to low- and middle-income countries. That’s a fact,” Sullivan said. “It’s also a fact that World Bank reform is not about China.”

The Biden administration has requested billions of dollars for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as part of a supplemental budget request. But it requires approval from Congress, which has been reluctant to provide additional international assistance, particularly for climate efforts.

“There’s a long record of talking a big game on international funding and then not being able to actually provide that when it comes time,” said Joe Thwaites, a senior advocate on international climate finance at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think the other major developed nations are going to be wary about being left to pick up the bill on their own if the U.S. pushes through an ambitious agenda but then bails on actually providing the money for it.”

Widening divides

Those divisions don’t bode well for the weekend summit. Meetings among G20 climate and energy ministers in the run-up to the leaders’ summit failed to reach consensus on issues such as phasing out of fossil fuels or setting a target to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

While many G20 countries back those objectives, others have blocked them from moving forward, such as Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.

Disagreements over the role of carbon capture and storage also emerged in those meetings. The U.S. has said “unabated” fossil fuels — a term used to describe fossil fuel plants that are not equipped with carbon capture systems — need to be phased down, and it has been pushing for a so-called carbon management goal, an effort that hasn’t been well received by some countries.

Fossil fuels subsidies are also a point of contention. The G20 pledged to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies more than a decade ago but has made virtually no progress. A study last month by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that G20 countries spent more than $1 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies last year. The IMF says ending those subsidies could provide countries with additional revenue for clean energy.

The absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the weekend summit could also hinder progress.

A meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden during last year’s G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, was seen as helping spur agreement on action to halt rising temperatures. But relations between the U.S. and China have become more strained since then, and the global economy has showed signs of dragging.

Leaders managed to forge agreement at the G20 last year over phasing down “unabated coal power.” But it’s not clear that they can repeat that promise this weekend, given that India and other developing nations want to expand the pledge to include all fossil fuels, not just coal.